1Welcome to Ebbing, Missouri, the not-so-serene small town where Mildred Haynes has had enough. The tough-as-nails mother, played by Frances McDormand, has an epiphany while passing by a trio of dilapidated billboards on the road near her remote home. She pools what money she has to call out the local police department who have failed to solve the rape and murder of her daughter and thus sets the stage for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Mildred is a force of nature, channeling her grief and guilt over her daughter’s death into a singular focus, lighting a fire under the local police force who have seemingly let the case go cold. But the billboards also unleash a chain reaction of pain within the town, where the beloved police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) sadly has no response for the grieving but unforgiving Mildred, who doesn’t flinch upon Willoughby’s revelation that he’s dying of cancer. As Mildred sees it, her move should only ignite him to solve the case before he passes.

The billboards also turn the local police force, some of the town’s citizens and leaders and even her own son (Lucas Hedges) against her and put her in the crosshairs of her physically abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes), who unwittingly helped to fund the billboards.

But while the film hinges on the case, writer / director Martin McDonagh makes it less about the whodunit and more about how each of the flawed and broken characters in the film deal with the hands they’ve been dealt. McDermott’s dogged determination takes her down a very dark path until a realization from the most unlikely of sources helps her start to turn a corner. Willoughby’s journey also proves to be a turning point for Mildred as well as his dim, short-tempered officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who arguably makes the biggest strides within the film’s time span.

While the subject matter is definitely dark and the characters flawed, the performances are outstanding. McDormand, who McDonagh had in mind while writing the role, is as close to a shoe-in as there is for a Best Actress nod, while Harrelson and Rockwell have been getting supporting actor talk and even some early accolades. You can also look for the film to be in the hunt for Best Picture when the Oscar nominees are announced, as this murder mystery isn’t your typical formulaic film.

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Posted by Ari Coine