Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens with Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) driving down a rural road. A year ago, her daughter Angela was raped and murdered. Now, the case has stalled for the hothead Ebbing police department. But along the road, she finds what she believes could be path forward in the form of three decrepit billboards.
"What's the law on what you can and can't say on a billboard?" she asks the manager of Ebbing Advertising Co. "I assume you can't say nothing defamatory, and you can't say 'Fuck', 'Piss' or 'Cunt'?"
She decides to rent the billboards so that they display three messages: "Raped While Dying"; "And Still No Arrests?"; "How Come, Chief Willoughby?"
Mildred has been through hell and believes that "the more you keep a case in the public eye, the better the chances of getting the case solved." But the billboards divide the town. The residents of Ebbing are forced to choose between the mother whose daughter was brutally killed and the popular Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who's dying of pancreatic cancer.
It would be easy to imagine the premise as a seriously dark and thoughtful drama. But in the hands of writer/director Martin McDonagh, what emerges is a seriously dark and thoughtful comedy.
Apart from McDormand and Harrelson, Three Billboards has a large and talented ensemble cast. The townspeople of Ebbing are all a little (or a lot) off. There's Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a cop who's more inclined to violently defend the honor of his bumbling cronies than perform actual police work. John Hawkes plays Mildred's ex-husband, Charlie, who copes with the tragedy by dating a 19-year-old.
Then there's Peter Dinklage as James, a mustachioed barfly. In one of the film's best scenes, Mildred and James go out on a date where he acknowledges that while he's not much of a catch, she's not much of a catch, either. In the town of Ebbing, what constitutes as a "catch?"
Still, each character does their own small part to breathe life into their town, which on one hand is creepy and on the other is compassionate and quick to forgive.
SEE IT: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is now playing at Bridgeport, City Center, Fox Tower, Hollywood.