‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ spins an irresistible web of moral ambiguity

There are no heroes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Even Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who is on paper the embodiment of bravery and resistance, is a richly imperfect figure who commits a handful of serious crimes and isn’t very nice to a lot of not-very-nice people in her quest to avenge the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. In any other drama, Mildred — as a middle-aged mother — would likely be a clearly-drawn character. But writer/director Martin McDonagh, for whom this is an improvement on likeable debut In Bruges and derivative comedy Seven Psychopaths (a film that relied more heavily on Coen homaging than, surprisingly, Billboards does), has given McDormand the role of the vindictive, often violent gunslinger in this brilliantly conceived postmodern western, a film that showcases on its own terms that in deep America, the world of the West is still quite alive.

With McDormand and a Carter Burwell score, one would expect Billboards to have fallen victim to Seven Psychopaths’ Coen fetishism, but while the rural staging occasionally riffs on No Country for Old Men and Fargo, this is a more emotionally fiery human story than most of Joel and Ethan’s work. Neither does it opt for the flashy kicks of a Tarantino picture; the comedy in Billboards (and at times it’s terribly funny) belongs to the world of the film, rather than McDonagh’s. The absence of Colin Farrell making cheap references to French cinema is a godsend for the director, who clearly needed to completely shed his Irish and British background to mature as a storyteller of the Americana. We begin with Mildred renting three billboards on a little-used road to display large reprimands to the local police for not catching her daughter’s killer. It’s a neat gimmick, and it feels like the story will suffocate within its confines, but McDonagh knows better and it’s soon obvious that Three Billboards has the confidence to transcend its catchy(ish) title.

Mildred is approached by cancer-stricken Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and known ‘persons of colour torturer’ Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) to remove the signage, but she is as stubborn as only McDormand can be and our tale unfolds as she takes on the local institutions (her rant at a patronising Catholic priest is almost too eager to please) and every passive soul in the community. Harrelson is reliably a joy, but he’s just being Woody Harrelson again. Rockwell, however, is genuinely marvellous; he hasn’t made a good film in some time, and this is one hell of a role. Dixon is by all accounts a nasty piece of work, yet Rockwell depicts him with such desperation that even at his worst (poor Caleb Landry Jones can’t catch a break) he slowly earns our subdued sympathies. McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson’s characters have a compelling and ever-shifting dynamic, and the film suffers slightly in the pointlessness of some other characters. Only McDonagh being in an actual relationship with Abbie Cornish could excuse her roles in Psychopaths and now Billboards, where she is completely out of place. Peter Dinklage just doesn’t need to be in the film, and takes up space in a weird 20-minute block of plot progression that could probably have been cut out.

Where McDonagh displays genuine talent is in the shifts between the comic and the incredibly dark. The true horror of the original crime hits the viewer when Mildred swings open the door of her (previously unseen) daughter’s bedroom: there are Nirvana and Joe Strummer posters on the walls, and suddenly this is not a Law & Order victim: this is a real teenage girl lost to unspeakable evil. In flashback, the daughter is played by Kathryn Newton: also seen arguing with her mother about paternal custody on HBO’s Big Little Lies earlier this year. In this, her father is John Hawkes, who is now dating a braindead 19-year old zoo worker (probably the solidest source of humour amidst the grimness); his physical treatment of Mildred is just one clue as to her damaged state: she’s intensely admirable, but also a very tragic and bruised character. In other words, she’s what a real woman in an American film can and should be more often, and McDormand easily reasserts herself as the most talented actress of her generation. As good as they are, I’d like to see Meryl Streep or Annette Bening try to tackle this material.

Three Billboards is a film with something to say about some very timely topics: police brutality, the general dysfunction of the justice system (last portrayed this well in The Night Of) and the importance of taking action to combat sexual violence. But, more importantly, it’s simply a terrific story with a strong heart, performed by a flawless cast of truly genuine players. I don’t think anyone could complain were this to take Best Picture; it may not be as existentially powerful as something like Call Me By Your Name, but it’s important that a story like this can still grace the big screen, and isn’t confined to stage or television.