Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I have to admit I kind of admire the courage it took for a producer to approve such an awkward title for a mainstream Hollywood film. Of course, this isn’t a blockbuster, but a bid for a more sophisticated end-of-the-year award season audience, written and directed by quirky English filmmaker Martin McDonagh, mainly known up till now for the offbeat 2008 hit-man comedy In Bruges. For this one, he’s assembled an impressive cast of big-name and medium-sized name actors for a comedy drama about a quest for justice where justice is in short supply.
Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a divorced mother living just outside the fictional Missouri town of Ebbing. She buys space on three tattered old billboards, long in disuse, on the out-of-the-way road leading to her home, and on them she puts a message berating the local police force, and specifically its sheriff, Bill Willoughby, for failing to solve the case of her teenage daughter Angela, raped and murdered seven months before.
This is pretty heavy stuff for a comedy, but McDonagh specializes in using such contrasts for darkly humorous effects. The billboards become a story on the local TV news, and from there the repercussions spin out to include a variety of local characters. The main conflict is between Mildred and the sheriff played by Woody Harrelson, and also one of his deputies, Jason Dixon, a cartoonishly stupid officer played by Sam Rockwell, whose every word and action inspires trouble.
McDormand is the engine that makes the film run. Her character, Mildred, is implacable, foul-mouthed, basically willing to do anything in order to catch her daughter’s killer. And with her, “anything” goes a long way, and ends up challenging our ideas of what even a justifiably grieving mother should do. And this is intentional on the part of the screenplay. But the actress pulls it off in fine style—funny without going over the top, moving when she needs to be, McDormand is in command of her performance throughout.
Coming along for the ride are Peter Dinklage as a shy admirer of Mildred, for whom the sentiment is not returned (he’s very funny), John Hawkes as her foolish ex-husband, Abbie Cornish as the sheriff’s beautiful young wife, and others whose names, or at least faces, you may recognize. The plot strands get kind of thick and tangled, and not all of them are as good as the main one, namely Frances McDormand and her lonely quest. McDonagh is also unusually forgiving of his characters, even the reprehensible ones, which comes off as nice, but takes some of the edge off the satire.
Nevertheless, I’m glad to say that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is highly enjoyable and thought-provoking. It’s particularly refreshing to see a character-driven American film with a smart screenplay. Such things have become too rare.