Martin McDonagh’s latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is a darkly comedic drama that explores the dangerous cycle that can occur when anger and hate replace grief and compassion. At its core is Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a mother who decides to take action when the investigation into her teenage daughter’s murder begins to fade from the public conscious. Placing three billboards outside of town that directly call out the local law enforcement, specifically the ailing police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for the lack progress, Mildred begins to receive the ire of the community and the authorities. One of the many individuals who wants to see the billboards come down at all cost is the volatile Office Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Willoughby’s racist second-in-command who thinks violence and intimidation can solve all issues.
As tensions with the authorities escalate, and the community sides with law enforcement, Mildred refuses to let others bully her into taking down the signs. Committed to fighting until justice has been served, Mildred fails to consider how the dispute will impact her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes).
One of the most striking things about McDonagh’s brilliant script is not Mildred’s hilarious and scathing bluntness, but rather the way it balances the wealth of emotions that character goes through. Frances McDormand is phenomenal as the grieving mother whose anger is turning her into the same type of monster that she despises on the police force. One just needs to look at how her moral decline is juxtaposed by Dixon’s slow realization that actions have consequences as example of this.
However, at no point does our love for Mildred ever waiver. We want her to get justice and find peace, even if that justice may not be for the crime in question. It is this delicate and complex tightrope McDonagh’s film walks that makes it so engaging to watch.
Though Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a thoroughly enjoyable film, there are some events in the latter sections that seemed a little too convenient. One of which is an action that Mildred takes which would have led to major consequences in most films. However, here it is laughed off and her dangerous action is treated as a result of misguided grief rather than malice. I wonder if the same comedic leniency would have occurred if one of the folks Dixon is known for harassing had performed the same crime. Speaking of Dixon, his character shift towards the end also felt too sudden to warrant the whole “he has done bad things, but is not necessarily a bad person” implication the film gives.
Fortunately, there is more than enough that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri does well to forgive the detours it takes along the road to compassion and understanding.