Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion … I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.

—Kurt Vonnegut

A mother’s daughter has been slain. Worse, the teenager was raped while she died. Worse yet, months have passed, and there have been no convictions, no arrests, and no leads. What’s a mother to do? Make her private hell public and drag the bastards down with her, that’s what.

And she does. Mildred (played with exquisite perfection by Frances McDormand) purchases three decrepit billboards located along an unused road and places her message in stark red and black: “Raped while dying.” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Naturally, Ebbing Police Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, also excellent) takes umbrage with the billboards but has little recourse; a girl lies in the ground, and he can offer no resolution. Yes, it seems silly to point fingers, but when the pain is this much, what can one do?

One thing is certain: we are solidly in Martin McDonagh territory: a land of deep pain, tragic loss, and dark, dark humor.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the third feature from the famed Irish playwright and his second set in the United States. Like most Irish writers, McDonagh has a keen ear for dialogue, particularly how people rely on vulgarity while grasping for clarity—something much more prevalent these days. And though McDonagh could have crafted a timeless story, he instead roots it so firmly in the present that the conflicts in Three Billboards practically pulse off the screen with furious indignation.

Take Willoughby’s screw-up lackey, Dixon (Sam Rockwell, magnificently repugnant); sure, he’s a drunk and a racist—though he’s quick to assault a white guy and a girl for that matter—but he’s hardly an outlier, and he certainly doesn’t come from a vacuum. Every time he cocks his fist, he probably pictures his father. And every time he tips back the bottle, he tries to wipe out that feeling. Dixon has swallowed personal history within his public pain, and the world will suffer the consequences.

The same goes for Mildred’s abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes), whose shadow cuts a dark path across the lives of Mildred and their son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges). Robbie is young, and there is hope that the cycle may be broken with him. But in the meantime, he’s just trying to make it through a day without thinking about the sister that isn’t there.

It’s a mean old world. There’s no doubt. Mildred’s billboards may have stirred Ebbing’s pot, but this kettle was bound to boil over eventually. Fire is a recurring motif, and at times it feels like the whole damn movie is going to go up in flames. It doesn’t. McDonagh and McDormand keep Three Billboards’ feet firmly on the ground, cracking wise the whole time. Thank heavens. If they couldn’t, it would be downright unbearable. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh
Produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
Fox Searchlight Pictures, Rated R, Running time 115 minutes, Premiered Sept. 4, 2017 at the Venice Film Festival.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 15, “A history of violence.”