If you thought Frances McDormand couldn’t find a character as rich in detail and emotional resonance as Sheriff Marge Gunderson in “Fargo,” allow me to introduce you to Mildred Hayes, the grieving small-town mom at the center of writer-director Martin McDonagh’s bracing drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
The billboards in the title are on a road near Mildred’s house in Ebbing — and it’s in front of one of them, we learn, that the body of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was left, burned to a cinder, after she was raped and murdered. And it’s these billboards that Mildred rents out, to write a pointed message to Ebbing’s police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), asking why there have been no arrests in the case, seven months later.
Her message gets his attention, as intended — with Mildred icily noting he came to her house a darn sight faster after the billboards went up than when Angela was killed. Mildred and Willoughby have some history, apparently, and enough respect for each other that Mildred is genuinely taken aback when Willoughby tells her that he’s got cancer and only has a few months to live.
Being a small town, everyone knows about Mildred’s grief, but everyone also has affection for Chief Willoughby — so soon Mildred finds many taking sides against her. Even her teen son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), isn’t too thrilled, because the billboards are a daily reminder of his sister’s murder.
Mildred’s biggest threat is Willoughby’s protégé, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a none-too-bright cop known around town for beating up black suspects and being easily manipulated by his hard-as-nails momma (Sandy Martin).
McDonagh, best known for the criminal-world dark comedies “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” populates Ebbing with a fascinating array of residents. They include Mildred’s quick-tempered ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), and his perky girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving); Willoughby’s caring wife, Anne (Abbie Cornish); Mildred’s no-nonsense co-worker Denise (Amanda Warren); and the town’s lovelorn used-car dealer, James (Peter Dinklage).
McDonagh lets the story of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” flow like a river, and sometimes the turns are sharp and the rapids breathtaking. And his flair for dialogue that cuts deep, including Mildred’s rat-a-tat barrage of profanity, makes the listener hang on every word. (One example: Charlie comments, “Penelope says violence only begets more violence,” to which Mildred sarcastically replies, “Penelope used ‘begets’?”)
Still, without McDormand in the middle, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” wouldn’t work. Mildred is easily the most robust character McDormand has been given since “Fargo,” and she delivers both the maternal ferocity and the undimmed grief that the role and this intensely satisfying movie require.
* * * 1/2<br>Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri<br>Frances McDormand gives a career-best performance in this sharply written story of a mother’s rage in a small town.<br>Where • Area theaters.<br>When • Opens Wednesday, Nov. 22.<br>Rating • R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.<br>Running time • 115 minutes.