The balancing act of black comedies can be difficult to judge but writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to tread this line impressively. Following a five-year gap, he returns with his third feature Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The crime drama centres around Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a mother grieving the death of her daughter who was raped and killed seven months prior. Taking matters into her own hands, she targets Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) with billboards asking why there have been no arrests. This sparks a hostile reaction from Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and the rest of the community, and the fallout leads to significant consequences for the town.
In an early scene, Mildred delivers a scathing and yet hilarious expletive-laden speech about moral culpability after her actions are called into question by the local priest. As well as being incredibly funny, it opens the door for the exploration of themes of blame and responsibility which cut through the entire film. The story soon becomes less about the murder investigation itself and more about the impact the billboards have on everything and everyone else involved, and it never quite goes where you expect it to.
With an array of characters so well written and rich in texture, the performances are stellar all round. Frances McDormand brings a fierceness and volatility to the role of Mildred, and aside from the acerbic exterior she wears, there’s a softness and vulnerability to her which is very moving in her quiet moments of loss. Woody Harrelson is also magnificent as Chief Willoughby, who has an emotional subplot that carries weight alongside the central narrative. Perhaps best of the bunch though is Sam Rockwell, who plays the heinous and hideous racist cop Dixon. The magic in the writing is that he is far from the straightforward villain of the piece, and Rockwell excels in portraying him as an extremely flawed product of the narrowminded, negative society he has grown up in.
‘Anger just begets greater anger’ is one of the many clever lines of dialogue muttered, and aptly captures the searing biblical injustice that looms over Three Billboards. Shocking and side-splitting, and yet tender and tragic, McDonagh masterfully takes us on a complicated and chaotic path with these fascinatingly thought-provoking characters. Whether or not Mildred finds redemption and the sense of closure she is so desperately seeking, it is an absolute pleasure to watch her try.