Almost as soon as the audience is introduced to Mildred Hayes, the protagonist of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s clear that she is not a woman to be trifled with. Framed from behind as she strides into a room, taking charge immediately as Carter Burwell’s commanding and almost heroic theme plays, she almost resembles the lone gunslinger of a classic Western – the one who would stand up for their cause against anyone who got in their way. Yet the more I saw of Mildred Hayes the more I felt that Three Billboards is demonstrating the folly of such a figure, and how fighting against the world does more harm than good.
Hayes has a good reason to be angry, though – her teenage daughter was violently murdered not far from her own home and seven months later the police still haven’t made any arrests, prompting her to hire out the titular billboards to hold them accountable and remind them of her daughter’s case. She’s a harsh woman who swears up a storm and doesn’t care what anyone thinks, completely willing to ruin her own reputation and the reputation of anyone who gets in her way as long as it means her daughter’s killer can be found. It’s a dangerous role that verges on being unlikable, but Frances McDormand delivers a career-best performance to suggest that a lifetime of pain and loss has forced Mildred to never acknowledge her own vulnerability again. McDormand commands every scene she’s in, overpowering and single-minded in her determination to get someone to listen to her. Where Mildred is assured and uncompromising in her belief that she is in the right, Sam Rockwell’s performance as the racist and violent Office Jason Dixon is unbalanced and volatile – lashing out whenever someone accuses him of being wrong. They’re two completely different figures yet the actors compliment each other perfectly, with both finding moments of tenderness in characters that push the boundaries of how far one can go while still being sympathetic. Somewhere between the two is Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby, the primary focus of Hayes’s ire despite being deeply respected in town. Willoughby opposes Hayes’s accusations while begrudgingly respecting her strength, with writer-director Martin McDonagh’s script critiquing aspects of the police institution while also acknowledging the difficulty of the job.
While the humour in McDonagh’s previous films was as black as comedy can get they were undoubtedly still comedies – even if they did explore topics such as hitmen, psychotic murders, and dog-nappers. With Three Billboards the writer-director employs the strengths that made his prior scripts so entertaining – vulgar wit, politically incorrect dialogue, and frequently absurd conversations and scenarios – while still telling a dramatic and morally conflicted story of a mother’s frustration and fury over her lost daughter. The film is often laugh-out-loud funny but never feels as though the situation at its core is being made light of, and it marks McDonagh’s most confident work as a filmmaker yet.
They say drama comes from conflict, and there’s a considerable amount of conflict between the characters in Three Billboards. A powerful sense of anger can be felt throughout much of the film, and nearly every player in it either yells curses, insults, or actual punches at one another before it’s all over. What surprised me, though, is how despite this the story promotes the message that hatred never really solves anything. There aren’t any easy answers to many of the questions on offer within Three Billboards, and some who may not deserve redemption still seek it before the credits roll, but it’s a film that demonstrates how anger can’t fix a problem – just start new ones.
4 and a half stars.