The meaning of that curious title is in one sense almost immediately apparent, though the explanation initially raises more questions than it answers. Three dilapidated and unused billboards beside a remote rural road are rented, and filled with the words “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS”, and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” respectively. Footing the bill is local woman Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand).
We are subsequently informed that Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered nine months earlier, and the investigation – headed by the local police chief, who is the Willoughby in question (Woody Harrelson) – has gone and got precisely nowhere. Needless to say, Mildred is distraught and furious about this. She’s also an exceedingly tough customer, and a force to be reckoned with. One of the main pleasures here is hearing her deliver some of writer-director Martin McDonagh’s withering lines and observations. At their best, they make you feel inclined to applaud; an analogy she draws between LA gangs and the Catholic Church springs particularly readily to mind.
Frances McDormand’s performance in this film has been touted as potential Oscar material, and she is indeed (as always) terrific. But this is really an ensemble piece with a great many characters, and Harrelson and Rockwell – among others – are virtually as impressive.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a rattling good yarn with a complex plot and (rarity of rarities in mainstream cinema) a great ending. It’s also an intriguing mixture of powerful intense Southern Gothic drama and pitch-black comedy. Sometimes the level of intensity and the frequency of violent incidents get too over-the-top to be plausible, but the movie’s great strengths – especially the aforementioned sharp dialogue – stop that from mattering unduly.