Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother unable to come to terms with the horrific death of her only daughter seven months earlier. Living now with her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), she pays to hire out advertising space on three billboards (outside Ebbing, Missouri – of course), convincing salesman Red (Caleb Landry Jones) that the messages she intends to present are legal, for she’s highlighting the blatant ineptitude of the local law enforcement, and in particular, the named Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), to call them out for making no arrests after her daughter was raped and murdered.
While some remain sympathetic, many feel her actions are irresponsible, particularly given how popular the Sheriff is around town. Nobody is more hurt than police officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who vies to get his revenge on Mildred by making her life a misery. But this woman has already hit rock bottom and has nothing left to lose – and she’s willing to put up one helluva fight.
Where this brilliant production thrives most predominantly, is in the striking combination of comedy and drama, which has been seamlessly woven together. There are certain scenes that will have the audience roaring with laughter, and then within a mere matter of seconds the tone shifts, and we enter into such dark, bleak territory – and McDonagh ensures that both styles don’t compromise the other. The filmmaker also blurs the line on both sides, and while naturally you side with Mildred, at times her actions can be irrational and reprehensible, and she too is an immensely flawed character (which Peter Dinklage’s James finds out the hard way), while conversely Willoughby is depicted as being kind at times, endeared by his vulnerable demeanour, particularly as he’s unwell. There’s no winners or losers in this instance, and the film revels in such a notion.
McDormand, as always, turns in a remarkable performance, and while it may be too early to call, she’s definitely in with a chance of winning her second Academy Award. Meanwhile Harrelson matches her at every turn, continuing on a fine run of movies, as the actor consistently turns in such nuanced, dependable performances – barely putting a foot wrong in years. Then, of course, we’re left with Rockwell, who plays roles of this nature with such ease, portraying volatility and unpredictability so impressively, as you’re always on edge where he’s concerned. And yet he injects this sense of inadequacy, so pathetic at times, allowing the viewer to invest in his character.
Unlike his brother John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone, Martin has made a triumphant move to the States, allowing his indelible comedic style to translate well across the Pond. Not only that, but this feature is entrenched in its distinctly American landscape, to a point where it feels like it could easily have been written by the Coen Brothers – and let’s face it, there’s not really many compliments higher than that.