The title town of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seems like the very model of traditional small-town America, radiating charm and tranquility. Neighbors keep in touch, and the crime rate is so low that the police station shuts down at night. But after the savage rape and murder of a local teenager goes unsolved for seven months, the victim’s fed-up mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), rents three billboards outside town and uses them to shame the popular police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Her defiant stance will push buttons and trigger a wave of violence, turning this funny, profanity-laced drama into a cautionary tale about the dangers of playing God.
Irish playwright Martin McDonagh broke into feature filmmaking with the critically lauded In Bruges (2008) and followed it with the crime comedy Seven Psychopaths (2012), and like those movies, this third feature revolves around buffoonery and bloodshed. Willoughby and his dim-bulb deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), alternate as the targets of Mildred’s wrath. At first they seem like a couple of good ol’ boys awkwardly adjusting to a new era in which public displays of racism and homophobia are taboo; Dixon makes an unconvincing bid for political correctness by substituting “persons of color” for the N-word, but on a bender he beats up a local man he suspects of being gay. Willoughby has cancer, Dixon has mommy issues, and because of their own demons, they connect with Mildred’s pain and try to keep her from destroying herself. So does a local priest (Nick Searcy), whom Mildred insults by bringing up the pedophilia scandals of the Catholic church. Even the town dwarf (Peter Dinklage), who wants to get into Mildred’s pants, covers up for her after she commits arson.
Mildred seems to be heading toward self-immolation, and her constant rage incites blowback from the townspeople: in one scene, after a protester torches the billboards, Mildred hauls an extinguisher to the top of one and balances there precariously in hope of saving this shrine to her daughter, whom she argued with only hours before the girl’s death. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tells the story of a woman emulating God’s vengeance when she might profit more by emulating his forgiveness, especially toward herself. v