There are indeed three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, sitting dilapidated, unused and largely unseen given their location alongside a quiet country road. However, they soon become the centre of attention when grief-stricken Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents the signs in a bid to hold local Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) accountable for what she sees as a lack of progress in the investigation of her daughter’s rape and murder some nine months earlier. Bitter and burdened by an all-consuming mix of guilt, anger and grief, Mildred is desperate for answers and seemingly has no regard for whoever happens to get in the way of her bloody-minded quest. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is undeniably funny at times and McDormand is sensational in the lead role, but there are too many moments of serious violence that are played for laughs and for which there are no real consequences forthcoming for those responsible.
One thing at which McDonagh has proven very adept in his previous films (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) is dishing up great dialogue and that is the case again here with some cracking lines delivered by various players, which include Sam Rockwell as a particularly problematic policeman. Despite Mildred’s very public admonishment of Willoughby, there is nothing to suggest that he hasn’t done everything he can to solve the case and Harrelson brings a perfect mix of humour and humanity to the role. In fact, Harrelson is terrific as a man held in high regard by the community who is burdened by a pressing personal predicament that is much more serious than anything Mildred can throw at him. Mildred’s foul-mouthed tirades are a riot and her interactions with Willoughby are something special, but when one of them makes an early exit from proceedings, the film flounders through the final third amidst a series of convenient coincidences and scenes that only seem to exist for the comic potential they offer; a potential that is not always fully realised.
Rockwell is lumbered with a character too stupid to be believable and the fact that he is allowed to get way with so much – such as throwing somebody out of a second-storey window for no real reason whatsoever – with nary a hint of any serious repercussions other than losing a job for which he was utterly unsuited in the first place, requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. As James, Peter Dinklage has little to do other than suffer through a series of dwarf jokes and serve as an alibi for Mildred, while John Hawkes also features as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie, who is prone to outbursts of violence. In one scene, Charlie has Mildred pinned to the wall and is poised to strike when his girlfriend Penelope (Australian actress Samara Weaving) interrupts proceedings but is utterly non-plussed about what she has witnessed. Unfortunately for Weaving, Penelope is such a cliché as the dumb, much younger girlfriend that the character has little substance and affords little opportunity for her to make her presence felt, while another Aussie in Abbie Cornish is also confined to a somewhat insubstantial role as Willoughby’s wife.
When it’s good, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is very good; a cracking good yarn with a plot that seems much more complex than it actually is, but is engaging nevertheless. The dialogue delivers all the best moments, one of which is Mildred drawing an analogy between LA street gangs and the Catholic Church. Sometimes, the violence is too excessive within the context of this story, but the standout performances from McDormand and Harrelson go a long way towards compensating for the shortcomings that exist in character development and narrative logic. It is not surprising that McDormand is amongst the Oscar favourites for her performance and whilst the film itself doesn’t quite reach the same lofty heights, it is definitely something that strays far from the cookie-cutter conventions of Hollywood.