Perhaps unsurprisingly, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens on the three titular billboards, abandoned along a two-laner in the hills and shrouded in fog. But soon, a station wagon slams to a halt before them, and a woman fixes a steely gaze on the empty boards. She then marches into the advertising office — where the young proprietor is prophetically reading Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” — and books the three billboards to read: “Raped While Dying”; “And Still No Arrests?”; and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”.
Mildred (Frances McDormand) leases the signs to spur action in the unsolved case of her teenage daughter’s murder. The billboards put her in immediate conflict with small-town police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man of some kindness, and his foolish bad-cop underling, Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
At first, one reckons this is a film about Mildred, with the police, as represented by the yin and yang of Willoughby and Dixon, as her antagonist. But the story is broader, and Billboards reveals itself to be an ensemble piece. Mildred’s defiance ripples throughout the town, becoming a catalyst for actions besides her quest for justice. The townfolk, as people are wont to do, have moved on from the horrific crime; it’s uncomfortable to deal with. But Mildred has not moved on: These billboards have simply manifested more clearly and explicitly Mildred’s immovable grief and anger.
Three Billboards is written and directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), and offers plenty of his oft-cited crackling profanity, mordant humor and shocking violence. The tone shifts frequently, but the deft cast manages it well. Harrelson and Rockwell are both good. Also on board are two young up-and-comers, Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out) and Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), as well as stalwarts John Hawkes, Clarke Peters and Peter Dinklage (sporting a particularly soulful moustache).
But the film rightly belongs to McDormand, who is simply grand; this is perhaps her best role since Fargo, and it utilizes every bit of what makes the actress great — from her tautly coiled body (armored in shapeless coveralls) and her unadorned face lined with hard life, to her devastatingly delivered deadpan retorts. (McDonagh even gives her a soliloquy of sorts, in an epic takedown of a self-serving priest.)
The film has a secondary thread depicting the casual, systemic racism of the town’s police, and the collective shrug with which it is acknowledged. It’s a timely starting point, but the movie, in a tone-deaf stumble, eventually smoothes this history over with a redemptive arc. It’s a bum note in an otherwise smartly constructed film that wants to explore some of the individual and collective sins of a “typical” American town with plenty of bite and brio.