'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' is a study in grief that's so much more

Frances McDormand plays an angry, grieving mother in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." Fox Searchlight Pictures
Frances McDormand plays an angry, grieving mother in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." Fox Searchlight Pictures
Published Nov. 21, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is where Mildred Hayes vents grief over her daughter's rape and murder, and anger toward a police chief who hasn't solved the case. Ten words on stark canvases setting off a powder keg of poetic cruelty and unexpected redemption.

The setting and Martin McDonagh's movie are no country for weak women. No problem. As played ferociously by Frances McDormand, Mildred is no one to underestimate, not for her callousness or ease of violence when necessary, which is for her alone to decide.

Yet Three Billboards isn't simply a revenge flick or murder mystery, although it's propelled by such elements. Writer-director McDonagh's third film, after In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, continues the theme of vulnerable characters doing disturbing things and of monsters finding mercy.

McDonagh beautifully overwrites Mildred's quest for justice and the cops, bumpkins and unindicted bystanders in her path. His dialogue is crude and to the bluntest point when it isn't gliding into monologues of darkly comical despair. McDonagh writes with a novel's breadth and directs with a thriller's pace; his story seems longer than the movie.

The police chief protested by Mildred's billboards is William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, right as rain for the role). Willoughby is a hard-nosed officer initially set up as a nemesis, but one beauty of McDonagh's screenplay is that characters truly develop. First impressions evolve into surprise and disappointment as we get to know these tragically damaged people.

As such, Three Billboards is a movie best viewed knowing as little as possible about McDonagh's plan for Mildred, Willoughby or his officer, Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell — let's just hand him the supporting actor Oscar right now.

Dixon is a frightening creation, a racist hothead whose every move is unpredictable. He's also a clown living drunk with his toxic mother, a cop smaller than his badge. Dixon is fiercely protective of Willoughby since the chief looked the other way after he tortured a black suspect, and for another reason that's another of McDonagh's sucker punch twists. Mildred's billboards set Dixon off real bad.

Rockwell's performance is a revelation even if you already consider him among our finest actors. Dixon's vast degrees of stupidity, his comical and deadly impulses, give Rockwell the showcase he has long deserved; it's practically everything he can do at once.

Ebbing's collateral damage in this feud includes a gentleman dwarf (Peter Dinklage) with a crush on Mildred, her ex-husband (John Hawkes) and his teenage girlfriend, the billboard salesman (Caleb Landry Jones) and on more serious notes Willoughby's wife (Abbie Cornish) and Mildred's son (Lucas Hedges). Even the smallest roles get pulled in from the margins of McDonagh's screenplay.

Three Billboards lands somewhere near Coen brothers country, eloquently finding comedy in horror and vice versa. Yet it remains its own mangy animal; a study in grief that's funny, finding justice in terror and forgiveness after the unforgivable.

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Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Director: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek, Clarke Peters, Samara Weaving, Kerry Condon

Screenplay: Martin McDonagh

Rating: R; strong profanity and violence, racial epithets, sexual references

Running time: 115 min.

Grade: A