Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; 115 min; Rated R


“Raped while dying.”

“And Still No Arrests”

“How come Chief Willoughby?”

On a side road outside of Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand) has rented three billboards, and each possesses one of the lines above, painted in black on an attention-getting red backdrop, asking the seminal question regarding solving the rape and murder of her daughter: “How come?” It’s been seven months since her daughter was murdered, and Mildred has decided that the chief of police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has had more than enough time to find the killer. The signs are her protest.

And so begins what may be one of the best films of the year, a dark and tragic comedy that is not in any way a murder mystery, but a character study of how three individuals react to the demand, posed by Mildred, for not only an investigation but for an arrest. Although Mildred has made her statement, she is nowhere close to finished. For her, the billboards are just act one.

To say that this narrative is not a police procedural is to say that “Three Billboards” is something else entirely and proves to take the expectations of the audience and send them in a totally different direction. Think of it as a cultural autopsy of a small, fictional heartland town.

At the center of this film, at its essential core, is Mildred, trapped between grief and rage. She crosses line after line with her anger until the town, which was once sympathetic because of her loss, turns against her. The Chief is much cared for, and he makes every effort to convince Mildred that he has done all that is possible to find the killer of her daughter. Mildred is, of course, not satisfied.

To make the film even edgier is the Chief’s second-in-command, a surprisingly dim deputy, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), known for his racism and abuse of authority. He lives with his mother and regards his badge as a license to do just about anything he pleases. In some strange way, his anger mirrors that of Mildred but for very different reasons. That he wears a uniform defies understanding, especially considering the compassionate persona of Willoughby, a family man (two daughters) and a lovely wife.

“Three Billboards” is a study of personal demons and regret and courage. It is irreverent, a tsunami of revenge, yet a web of moments of kindness that surprise. And all the minor characters that satellite the Chief, Mildred and Dixon are outstanding in their verisimilitude. Most are, well, especially Mildred, consistently scatological, dark and ragged at the edges, unforgiving and yet forgiving.

It should be no surprise that this film will not only find recognition for best picture of the year, but that it is just as likely that the three leads will also be nominated.

A note: I have done my best to say as little as possible about the plot, while avoiding describing any scenes in detail. “Three Billboards” should be seen fresh, allowing the twists and turns to catch the audience by surprise, enjoying its creative quirkiness, though realizing that it is steeped in moments of violence that appear and then vanish like so much mist.

Once again: This film is stunningly well acted; it’s raw and ambiguous; and finally redemptive. Well, sort of redemptive. But in the end, the audience is asked to decide.