Review: 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' Is Frances McDormand & Sam Rockwell At Their Best

There are actresses who excel at playing angry characters, and then there is Frances McDormand. She's turned it into an art form, and that's not to say she can't do anything else but when she's playing mad, watch out. To that point, teaming her up with writer/director Martin McDonagh, who wrote Colin Farrell's terrific rage-fueled performance in black comedy In Bruges, and the diabolical characters of Seven Psychopaths, would seem like a match made in Heaven. And it is, the combination of McDormand and McDonagh works to elevate the passionate, complex Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri into an instant classic and a frontrunner for Best Picture.

McDonagh affords a level of intricacy and commitment to character that we just don't see in movies very often anymore, so quick the audience is to have everything be laid out simply. There is nothing simple about Three Billboards, with the exception of its core message about the circle of hatred and violence. McDormand is tough as nails Mildred Hayes (always in her blue jumper), and she's fed up. It's been months since her daughter was raped and murdered, but the cops still haven't made an arrest. So she takes what is, perhaps, a rash step and rents out three billboards not far from her home. The signs pull no punches in calling out the local police, in particular the much-loved Chief  Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for their lack of aggressiveness in finding a suspect. It wouldn't be so bad since the billboards aren't on a main road, but when Mildred goes on TV and calls the police out for beating up black people and eating doughnuts than doing their jobs...well, that's a bridge too far.

While Mildred is enough of a firecracker herself, the film's most volatile component is Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell in what may be the finest acting of his career, which is saying something. In a police force that has already been accused of racism, Dixon is the worst of the bunch. It's pretty much accepted that he tortured a black kid at some point, but for some reason, perhaps to keep him in their sight, Dixon is still on the force. There's no controlling his anger, as we see from his verbal and physical attacks on everybody, including Red (Caleb Landry Jones, in a nice change of pace), the kid who sold Mildred the ad space. Dixon's explosive rage spares no one, especially those who disparage Willoughby, the only real father-figure in his life.

We've come to expect extreme vulgarity and offensive humor from McDonagh, and he once again delivers. Three Billboards is shockingly hilarious for a story that comes from a very grim place, and takes some gut-wrenching turns along the way. That balance is absolutely necessary and also one of the most fascinating juggling acts to see unfold. While watching it I was actually waiting to see the whole thing come to pieces, and at times it very nearly does. For much of the film there is a tug of war between Mildred, Willoughby, and Dixon that, while tense and certainly dangerous, is almost playful. What made it interesting is that Willoughby isn't hated like the rest of the force; he's a respected pillar of the community and a genuinely good guy who seems to have a certain affection for Mildred's brand of orneriness. And she, too, seems to have a respect for Willoughby. That makes playing the game of public opinion dicey for them both, while Dixon is just there to light a match and set everything on fire.

There does come a point when that playfulness ends. Two shocking acts of violence take place back-to-back, and you wonder if things will simply become too bleak to enjoy. And it almost is, but McDonagh smartly changes course to examine these characters and the hatred that has defined so many of them. It's a turn that takes Mildred into areas we least expect, and such is the nature of hatred that she is driven to do things she, and us, would never have anticipated. But also for Dixon, we see how a legacy of hate can be passed down from generation to generation, and that once that cycle is broken there is a chance for redemption. Somehow McDonagh manages to weave in a little bit of hopefulness in this story when it seems like there should be none.

By now you probably guessed that McDormand is simply incredible, with honors surely awaiting her in the near future. It's not just that she turns Mildred into such a firebrand, she's also able to capture the depth of her guilt over her daughter's death. Of everyone it's Rockwell who has the toughest job convincing us Dixon is someone worth saving. That he pulls it off is damn near miraculous. The cast is all around terrific, from Harrelson to Lucas Hedges as Mildred's son who is angry over the attention this has brought to his family. Clarke Peters channels Lester Freeman from HBO's The Wire, playing the new Sheriff brought in to shake things up. More of Clarke Peters is always a good thing. On the other hand, Peter Dinklage has a baffling role as the local dwarf whose sweet on Mildred. There doesn't seem to be any purpose for his character to be there other than as a convenient plot device. In fact, after he's introduced he's gone for practically the whole movie until he's needed, then never seen again. A subplot involving John Hawkes as Mildred's ex-husband, who left her for a 19-year-old airhead, doesn't add much other than a couple cheap laughs which the film doesn't need. There are so many deep, hearty laughs in there already.

Throughout, McDonagh's deft screenplay keeps us on our toes, never letting us get comfortable for even a moment.  The result is a film that is as much a crowd-pleaser (That ending!!!!) as it is extremely difficult to watch at times, and no matter what Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri is always rewarding.

Rating: 4 out of 5