The billboards sit on a back road nobody really uses anymore, on account of the highway, and the guy at the advertising company says they’ve been blank since 1986 (“That was Huggies”). So he’s willing to make the deal she’s asking for, all three of them for a year, even after he sees the messages, which are something like an anti-cop Burma Shave campaign: “RAPED WHILE DYING / AND STILL NO ARRESTS / HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” He just looks up and says, “I’m guessin’ you’re Angela Hayes’ mother?”
He guesses right. Her name is Mildred Hayes, she’s played by Frances McDormand, and she’s the focal point of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but she’s not the “main character.” Much like McDonagh’s previous picture, Seven Psychopaths, this is a packed ensemble piece, and like that film, it features important roles for Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Abbie Cornish. (I’m assuming Colin Farrell was off making a movie with Nicole Kidman.) Harrelson is the small-town police chief Mildred name-checks on billboard number three, who’s dealing not only with this unsolved case and the publicity around the billboards, but a terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer; Cornish is his understanding wife; and Rockwell is a hot-headed deputy with a reputation for brutalizing black suspects (“There was no… real evidence to support that,” the chief shrugs).
How these characters interact, and how their journeys connect and bounce off each other, is one of the many pleasures of McDonagh’s screenplay, so I’ll leave them unmentioned. Suffice it to say that no one is as simple, in motivation or in action, as they initially seem — such is life — and the ways in which the writer/director keeps repositioning these people, and letting them motivate each other’s better nature, is a welcome oasis of warmth in what could’ve easily been a sneer-fest.
In just three films (and a great many more plays), McDonagh has crafted a sui generis style, borne out of the marvelous musicality of his dialogue and the richness of his characters — and, thus, the superb actors they draw. McDormand is new to his stock company, but fits in as comfortably there as she does in the Coens’; the first thing we see after the title is the simple image of Frances McDormand thinking, one more exhilarating than any Marvel hero taking flight. She brilliantly crafts a portrait of furious grief, and of a woman who is just un-fuck-with-able; witness her response to the chief asking why she still put up the billboards if she knew he was sick (“Well, they wouldn’t be as effective after you croak, right?”) or the wordless, withering stare she gives her ex-husband’s new 19-year-old girlfriend when she says, well, pretty much any time she says anything.
She also faces off with John Hawkes and shares several scenes with Peter Dinklage, and just when you think this thing can’t possibly pack in any more of your favorite character actors, Clarke freaking Peters shows up. Harrelson does the kind of aging, affable good ol’ boy that he does so well, it’s tempting to take him for granted - but he’s playing some tricky notes here, and merely making them look easy. And, as per usual, Rockwell’s performance is a monster, easily conveying the surface of bravado and bullshit typical of this kind of guy, yet revealing the decent person who’s still somewhere underneath, if he can be bothered to dig him out.
But the most impressive element of Three Billboards — and, frankly, of all McDonagh’s work — is his peerless ability to mix profanely dark comedy with honest humanity. There’s an early scene where Mildred and Chief Willoughby are going at each other full-bore, and then he unexpectedly and rather embarrassingly coughs up blood on her. He immediately apologizes, profusely explaining that he didn’t mean to, and she just as quickly assures him, “I know, baby.” That tiny moment of shame, met with comfort, is the skeleton key to the whole movie, and the unexpected turns and allegiances of its third act. At the end of the day, McDonagh’s best quality isn’t his inventive profanity (though it’s certainly up there), or his theatrical monologues, or his zig-zag plotting. It’s his underlying faith in people — or, at least, in these particular people, whom he loves enough to draw so well.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
Jason Bailey is film editor at Flavorwire. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece, was published last fall by Voyageur Press. His writing has also appeared at The Atlantic, Slate, Salon, and The Village Voice, among others. Follow him on Twitter.