Months after her daughter was violently murdered, wrathful mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) pays to display a message on three unused billboards just outside of town, questioning the lack of action and arrests from police boss Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
This sends the town and police department into somewhat of a tailspin, and sets off the fragile temper of deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell). The pressure mounts on both the cops to take action and Mildred to get rid of the billboards – and from there, the film turns into a darkly comedic yet emotional character study of what you do about an awful situation when nothing can be done.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (bit of a mouthful – let’s call it Three Billboards for short) is a stellar piece of drama, with incredibly rounded characters at the heart of it who never quite act as you expect them to, and a plot that does the same.
Your instinct as the viewer is to put the people on screen into neat little boxes, with Mildred as the good guy and Willoughby and Dixon as the villains, but in this film, it’s just not that simple. No one is totally good, but no one is totally bad either, and that’s what makes the story so interesting. The sad truth is that as awful as the murder of Mildred’s daughter was, there’s only so far the law can go to catch the culprit – and so, you end up on everyone’s side, and yet no one’s.
Frances McDormand gives a powerhouse of a performance. Mildred is a seriously spiky character, all tough and unapproachable with this harsh undercut and blue overalls she seemingly never takes off, and yet flicks the switch to grieving mother in a heartbeat. It’s fantastic to see a female character (and a mother at that) allowed the freedom to just be a bit of a dick to those around her; to be complex and funny but shallow and dislikeable all at the same time.
Woody Harrelson is also excellent – he plays what could have easily been a cliche role in such a calm and understated way, and don’t be surprised if his wise words narrating over the film are what get you slyly wiping away tears.
Sam Rockwell is also impressive in how he plays such an oddball of a character. A grown man still living at home, a momma’s boy, a racist and somewhat stunted emotionally and mentally – Officer Dixon has a lot of trouble controlling his impulses. His arc is extremely questionable and the biggest issue with this film – his actions in the second half just don’t seem congruent with what we’ve seen so far – but it’s not so much to completely detract from the overall story.
There’s strong support from Caleb Landry Jones (slimy, but not too much) and Peter Dinklage (light relief with some hard hitting moments) – and there is a small but genuinely brilliant comedic turn from Australian actress Samara Weaving.
The dialogue is razor sharp and the humour even more so – every line is fast, snappy, perfectly pitched and the tone can turn on a dime. Martin McDonagh is truly masterful in the way he creates this community and brings it to life.
Visually, Three Billboards is impressive too, with the big red boards and bold black text making an impactful motif.
There are problems though – as well as the issue with Dixon’s motives as previously mentioned, we can’t help but wonder why Abbie Cornish was cast as Woody Harrelson’s wife? She does a perfectly fine job, but with a 20 year age difference between the two, wasn’t there a more age appropriate actress who would have done just as well?
The film has also faced criticism for it’s depiction of racism (and treatment of the racists) which can be uncomfortable, and there’s unnecessary fat jokes aplenty that don’t really sit right either.
Despite some iffy moments and character choices, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a beautifully written, masterfully directed and impeccably performed film that deserves the acclaim it’s received so far. An almost perfect 4 stars from us – it was a high 4, promise!
Three Billboards is showing in cinemas across the UK at time of publishing. Have a gander at the trailer below: