Tortured by the violent murder of her daughter, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) takes matter into her own hands by hiring a trio of unused billboards to call out the police’s failure to catch the killer.
McDormand delivers a spectacular performance as the no-nonsense grieving mother. It’s a brutal performance. She’s lost everything and her quest for justice often becomes a rampage of vengeance. She’s angry and she’s going to do anything she can to catch the killer regardless of who it affects. Caught up in her rampage is her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who just wants to move on; Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and the mentally handicapped Police Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
Writer/ Director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) has delivered a well balanced script showing all the characters for all their flaws. Nobody is put on a pedestal, not even the grieving Mildred. Equally, nobody is beyond redemption. There’s no villain of this piece. The closest thing perhaps is Rockwell’s Dixon. He’s a simpleton and a racist. He’s a nasty piece of work but we’re told by Willoughby that his heart is in the right place.
While not in any way condoning racism, Three Billboards’s main strength is that it portrays real people trying to do what they think is right, despite how misguided their actions may be. Mildred’s actions come from feelings of love and grief yet all she does results in pain and anguish to everyone around her. All Dixon wants to do is to make Willoughby and his mother proud but his desire to do this leads him to violence. Equally, Willoughby’s faith in Dixon results in sub-standard police work and innocent people getting hurt.
Despite its rather horrific subject matter, Three Billboards is very funny. Mildred’s dishing out of insults to everyone she comes across is joyous to watch and McDormand portrays the character with a playful rage. She’s well aware she’s rubbing everyone up the wrong way and she’s quite enjoying it. McDormand is excellent displaying this distant sarcasm but she’s equally brilliant in the quieter, more reflective moments.
Sam Rockwell is also fantastic. Dixon is a repulsive character and Rockwell doesn’t shy away form this but he plays the role with compassion. He’s often the comic relief but, vitally, we’re not laughing at his disability, nor does the film make light of his violent and racist actions. Rather, we’re laughing at the things that make him human – the fact that he’s rubbish at his job and can’t remember the names of witnesses, his pandering to please Willoughby and his relationship with his mother.
Three billboards is a detailed and layered look at the communities in small American towns and their cliques and their faults. It’s full of rich, complex and flawed characters, with even the worst of them shown compassion by the filmmakers. While no doubt dark in topic, it’s surprising uplifting as the audience realises the tension and the anger is amongst friends rather than enemies.