Mildred Hayes, the divorced single mother played with searing ferocity by Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is a hard person to be around. Understandably so, since it’s only been seven months since her teenage daughter, Angela, was found raped and murdered near their house in the small town of the title. Fixated on finding the perpetrator, Mildred cruises the streets in her old wood-paneled station wagon, dressed in a union work suit she seems never to take off, gaze fixed stonily ahead. She has no patience for the soothing pleasantries of the local priest, who drops by her house for a cup of tea and is served a profane rant about pedophilia in the Catholic clergy. She even scoffs at the repeated pleas of her surviving child, high school–aged Robbie (Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges, who also turns in a quiet but remarkable performance in this month’s Lady Bird), to take it down a notch and quit rubbing the horrible details of Angela’s murder into the face of everyone she meets.
Instead Mildred takes it up a notch. Spotting three long-unused billboards on her drive home, she conceives a notion to rent them out with custom-made messages directed at the local police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). I’ll let you discover what each of the billboards says—it’s enough to know that they sum up with admirable economy both the savage nature of the crime and Mildred’s fury at the Ebbing police, who haven’t yet made any arrests. The department is doing all it can, Chief Willoughby assures her, though that’s less than reassuring when the cop assigned to the case is a blustering numbskull like Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), known around town for his mistreatment of black suspects in custody.
The Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has written and directed two other movies, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, both of which, like Three Billboards, mix scabrous humor and shocking bursts of violence with surprisingly warm character comedy. With Three Billboards, McDonagh finds the best balance of tones he has yet on the big screen—which is not to say that this audacious and sometimes brutal movie hangs together completely. The last half-hour goes a little gonzo for my taste, with coincidences and bodies piling up fast, and there are at least two apparent endings before the real one comes.
But at its best, Three Billboards has two important things McDonagh’s previous films lacked: a lived-in sense of place and a vividly drawn female protagonist. Despite their memorable settings—a medieval Belgian tourist town, the Southern California desert—his earlier movies had a theatrical quality, the locations serving mainly as a scenic backdrop for tense encounters among chatty, neurotic men. Mildred Hayes is neither chatty nor neurotic. She’s stolid, monomaniacally convinced of the rightness of her cause, and as likely to communicate her needs with a swift kick in the crotch as via reasoned dialogue.
And unlike the displaced heroes of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Mildred is a part of a broader social landscape. For better or for worse, she belongs in Ebbing, even if most of its inhabitants, including her ex-husband (John Hawkes), regard her as certifiable. McDonagh deftly establishes a host of secondary characters who are more than just plot-advancers: the manager of the rundown office that rents out the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones), a regular at the town bar with a longtime crush on Mildred (Peter Dinklage), or the thuggish Officer Dixon’s even meaner mother (Sandy Martin). By the end, Ebbing feels like a town we know our way around, from the grubby confines of the police station to that lonely stretch of farm road with its three accusing billboards.
Though the cast is brilliant all around, the versatile Sam Rockwell still manages to stand out, even if Dixon’s hasty redemption arc feels unearned. But it’s Frances McDormand’s complete commitment to her often unlikable and sometimes unhinged character that lifts Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri to a higher moral plane. Mildred, the movie’s sole flashback implies, was not always that nice to her daughter when she was alive, and her idea of how to lift her grieving son’s spirits is to flick a spoonful of soggy cereal at his head and then mock his annoyance. But “nice” and “good” are two different things, and though Mildred makes many choices that are reprehensible or downright dangerous, McDormand never fails to convince us of the fundamental decency of this woman, a tragic heroine struggling to find even the tiniest scrap of meaning in a comically awful world. I said above that Mildred is a tough person to be around, and she is—there are moments late in the movie when she commits acts that push at the limits of audience sympathy and goodwill. But McDormand, at age 60 one of our most gifted and least calculating actresses, fearlessly challenges us to love her character anyway. Her vanity-free, fiercely truthful performance is the kind Hollywood ought to honor, and I hope she’ll be recognized when awards season rolls around. I’m tempted to take out three billboards.