Writer/director Martin McDonagh is skilled at creating excellent dark comedies, having written and directed 2012’s Seven Psychopaths and 2008’s In Bruges. Five years removed from his last feature film effort, McDonagh has returned with another original work that showcases his strengths as a storyteller. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri stars Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish and Caleb Landry Jones, and beneath it all it is a film about making peace with oneself and with others. Its main storyline, though, consists of a mourning mother who has three billboards put up to raise awareness of his daughter’s rape and murder and to question the priorities of the local police department. Like Last Flag Flying it sheds light on the concept of parents outliving their children, but McDonagh depicts a unique way in which the bereaved handle their pain.

McDormand is Mildred Hayes, and she’s confrontational and uptight mother. At the same time, she’s haunted by her daughter’s death. That tragedy happened a year ago, but the Ebbing police have come up empty and she decides to call them out. Mildred rents three billboards outside the town and puts the police, and its sheriff Bill Willoughby (Harrleson), on notice. The billboards divide the down and put many involved at unease. This includes Mildred, Bill, Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell), ex-husband Charlie Hayes (Hawkes) and Midred’s son Robbie (Hedges). McDonagh showcases the events which unfold and things get out of hand, to say the least.

McDonagh wrote an exceptional script that both smart and angry. It’s angry in the sense in that Three Billboards it’s the prevailing theme. Mildred, played marvelously by McDormand (and could be her best role since Fargo), is understandably angry, and she goes to great lengths to express that anger. McDormand pulls off a great balancing act – she’s angry and takes it out on everyone in her path. But at the same time you can see just how fragile and hurt she is underneath her tough exterior. McDonagh deserves credit for writing such an impressively realized female role, but there is no one other than McDormand who could’ve pulled it off this well.

Another character, Dixon, is angry, too, at Mildred because of the billboards. But Dixon, an alcoholic cop with more than subtle racist feelilngs, seems to be mad at everyone and at life. Dixon’s anger is misplaced since life has screwed him, too, and he’s lost with no real idea of what to do with his life. But Rockwell is excellent playing a bad guy of sorts, whose Dixon has more in common with Mildred than one may think.

Before I forget, Harrelson is excellent, too, and he rounds out an excellent cast which perfectly executes McDonagh’s script. As Willoughby, Harrelson’s performance is more about anger with oneself. As the town sheriff, Willoughby is a kind soul who wants to do all he can for his community. But with the rape/death case producing no leads and zero suspects he’s failed a grieving mother, and with Willoughby being a husband and father of two young girls, you know that eats away at him. Willoughby is another person who’s gotten a raw deal, and it’s interesting to note McDonagh posits that in nearly every character.

With his entire cast performing flawlessly, combined with smart writing and clear direction, Three Billboards is an amazing dark comedy that pulls no punches. It travels in unexpected directions – Mildred’s pursuit in finding the truth is actually not the focus. It’s actually cause and effect, and its focus is on anger and how it (when placed properly) can surprisingly produce more positive emotions, namely tolerance, acceptance and understanding. McDonagh, as in his past work, also does well to mask tropes. He understands life is unfair because of its many complexities and uncertainties. What’s better is that McDonagh knows exactly how to display that onscreen, and at times I was unable to separate the “good” people from the “bad” ones.

With that in mind, Three Billboards is one of the year’s best films and is McDonagh’s best work. The five years between this and Seven Psychopaths have allowed Martin McDonagh to grow as a filmmaker and I can’t help but look forward to his next project.

5 stars out of 5

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