Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review – a darkly humorous portrait of a woman in agony and grief

By Anna Jung

Frances McDormand plays a courageous vigilante who confronts the police by erecting three billboards to call attention to her daughter’s unsolved murder. This is McDormand’s best performance since Fargo and her portrayal of the embittered Mildred Hayes won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress.

After the success of his last dark comedy crime film, 7 Psychos, Martin McDonagh’s latest drama film has scored another hit. He won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture-Drama and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as six other Oscar nominations.

Black comedy seems to be director and screenwriter Martin McDonagh’s specialty. The depiction of a mother seeking justice for her raped and brutally murdered daughter creates a grim mood right from the start. And although there are scenes that could make anyone teary-eyed, the film is surprisingly hilarious at times. The comical moments are mostly on account of McDormand’s ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ attitude, as well as the performances of Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and GOT-star Peter Dinklage.

Mildred Hayes feels abandoned with the grief of her raped and murdered daughter Angela, which occurred seven months before the action of the film begins. The police have stopped their investigation and the case has not been solved. Angry and desperate, she scrapes together all her money and rents the abandoned billboards near her home. “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” can be read on them now. Hayes chose her words carefully in order not to come into conflict with the law. Still, the billboards upset the people in town, including Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is suffering from

pancreatic cancer (which is an open secret) and feels no guilt, as he has done everything possible to find the suspect. Still, he is sympathetic to Hayes’s frustration. Not so understanding is the racist and immature mother’s boy Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Triggered by Hayes’ lack of authority, Dixon threatens people close to Hayes.

Hayes is the mother you wish you had and didn’t have, she curses, beats up students who bully you in school, and injures her dentist in an altercation by drilling a hole in the nail of his thumb. After the incident, Willoughby brings her in for questioning, but coughs up blood during the interview. He then leaves the hospital against the doctor’s advice to spend a last idyllic day with his wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and his two daughters befor committing suicide. He leaves several letters, including one for Mildred Hayes, in which he explains, that   his suicide has nothing to do with her actions and that he had paid the next month’s rent for her billboards.

Her person and her billboards are attacked several times and, when stones are placed in her way, she responds with Molotov cocktails and a date with the towns dwarf, wittily played by Peter Dinklage, who oddly has a major crush on the weather-beaten, bandanna-wearing woman.

After Dixon gets fired by his new black supervisor, he goes through some changes and becomes witness of a stranger bragging about raping and murdering a young woman. He manages to write down the man’s license plate and to collect some of his DNA. He then seeks Hayes’s support.

It is a story about accepting death, about violence and revenge. McDonagh was inspired by billboards about an unsolved crime he noticed while travelling, and decided to create a fictional scenario around such a cruel fate. McDonagh created the character of Mildred Hayes with Frances McDormand in mind. McDormand had some doubts, but her husband Joel Coen finally convinced her to take the part. She then took her inspiration for her character from John Wayne, and Sam Rockwell’s character was inspired by Wayne’s co-star in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

Rockwell does a good job portraying insufferable blokes who love to hate. The role of an incompetent and abusive police officer could not have been played any better. Dixon learns his lesson the hard way, but not before he makes people suffer.

Woody Harrelson, best known for his role as a menacing colonel in War for the Planet of the Apes or Nutural Born Killers, shows us a different side. He completely pulls off the role as an endearing father and loving husband.

Peter Dinklage convinces and amuses the audience with his sensitive side. In a suit, well-groomed and with the best intentions, Dinklage’s character James romances Hayes and provides us with hilarious moments.

What makes this film so good, is the way McDonagh presents the events and the characters’ feelings in a way everyone can related to. The film presents harsh realities that anyone could comprehend, regardless of who and where they are. It reflects on current problems and raises topics that have potential for heated debates. The multi-awarded, Oscar-nominated movie is named one of the top ten films of the year and there is no reason not to watch it.


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