Martin McDonagh rebounds from the cheeky aimlessness of Seven Psychopaths with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the finest balance yet of his bleak sense of humor and offbeat moral sincerity. The billboards of the title become the focus of a scandal when Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents them to air her grievances about the police’s failure to apprehend the man who raped and murdered her daughter, Angela. Her stark call-out inspires sharp divisions in a small town where general respect for the authorities is undermined by accusations of brutality against minorities, opening up schisms that disturb the façade of a countryside idyll.
Mildred is a fitting showcase for McDormand’s acidic comic timing and capacity for portraying moral absolutism. A conservative woman further hardened by her daughter’s loss, Mildred refuses to accept even the most reasonable excuses for the unsolved murder, demanding that the blood of every man in town be drawn to compare against gathered DNA and suggesting that all males should have samples drawn at birth for a kind of pre-crime database. She verbally shreds those who urge her, with increasing reproach, to remove the billboards, from using church sex-abuse scandals to silence a nagging priest to outsmarting cops’ attempts at coercion. At times, she’s even willing to get physical, as in a gruesomely hilarious scene in which she stops a dentist, using his own drill, from vindictively operating without novocaine. Dressed perpetually in a faded jumpsuit that matches her own worn and work-hardened face, Mildred sometimes seems formed out of sandstone, an immovable fixture of the environment impervious to intimidation.
McDormand’s facility with the demented comic brinkmanship of the Coen brothers primes her for McDonagh’s cutting humor, but the filmmaker’s sense of moral reckoning allows the actress to explore similar terrain to different ends. Where the Coens’ films tend toward gradually spiraling further and further out of control, McDonagh’s work stresses an ultimate resolution to some kind of order, warped as it might be. The work of Flannery O’Connor, openly referenced in a shot of a character reading A Good Man Is Hard to Find, hangs heavily over the film, wherein the external chaos that ripples outward from Mildred’s actions ultimately resolves itself as an examination of her character and the pitfalls of her implacable stubbornness.
McDonagh’s stagey direction leaves ample room in his static images for suspense to mount, but for the most part it simply defers to the actors, who stare into the storm of McDormand’s fierce work and match its humor and pathos. As Jason Dickson, a thick-headed cop who gets into verbal scrapes with Mildred that he loses and whose explosions of violence are as tragic as they are repulsive, Sam Rockwell keys in on the sliver of decency inside of an ignorant man. As Charlie, Mildred’s ex-husband, John Hawkes intermittently slithers into frame to exude the horrible echo of whatever menace this man used to exert over her, inspiring apprehensive looks in Mildred’s face but never getting her to back down from a fight. And Peter Dinklage, as James, a sweet, perpetually mocked man whose affections for Mildred do not preclude his ability to stand up to her withering barbs, scores perhaps the film’s most concise put-down when appraising Charlie’s teenage girlfriend.
The finest supporting performance, though, belongs to Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby, who’s tormented by his failure to solve the case of Angela’s murder and struggling with terminal cancer. Bill’s scenes with Mildred are showcases for Harrelson’s talent for finding bleakly comic chemistry with his co-stars. Where everyone else responds to Mildred with disapproval and hostility, Bill masks his irritation behind a goading sense of humor that actually stymies the woman, diverting her moral crusade into a battle of wits wherein the one who scores the best one-liner wins. Bill’s affable cynicism pairs well with Mildred’s despairing nihilism, and the two share a clear admiration for each other that leads to surprising moments of tenderness.
One of the film’s most arresting moments comes in a heated argument between the two in which Bill becomes truly incensed, dropping his comical repartee to lay into her obstinacy. Just as he reaches the climax of his fury, he suddenly coughs blood in Mildred’s face, shocking both of them into silence and immediately evaporating the anger between them. In a film that sets up a stark conflict between Mildred and an incompetent police department, the sight of her gingerly cradling Bill’s face as he shamefully apologizes complicates the narrative, prefiguring later arcs of redemption and self-doubt that expand the already enormous moral range of McDonagh’s story.