Movie review: 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

Brad Keefe

What's in a name, really? The movie with one of the most endearingly clunky titles of the year also happens to be one of the best.

It's probably a good sign that the Hollywood suits didn't make writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) give “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” a punchier title. There's a lot to unpack, and while it's a wild ride, it's seldom simple.

With dollops of pitch-black comedy and characters with more complexity than some audiences can handle, “Three Billboards” is a wonderful sandbox in which its great cast gets to play.

Oh, and the lead performance by Frances McDormand? It will give “Fargo” a run for the best of her career.

McDormand plays Mildred, a woman in the locale mentioned in the title and responsible for those billboards. On a rural stretch of highway, Mildred rents three consecutive billboards calling out the town's police chief, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for his lack of arrest in the rape and murder of Mildred's daughter.

This isn't a case of a corrupt small town cop or a cover-up. Willoughby actually turns out to be a decent man in a case that just didn't present a case. Of course, that's not good enough for Mildred, who wants the chief to draw blood from every man in the state of Missouri.

Less likable is Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a deputy on the force who seems to have entered police work to abuse his authority and pad his ego. Oh, and there's that layer of outright racism.

McDonagh takes things in directions that defy expectation and gives a refreshing amount of credit to his audience to join in on the ride. That ride is a complicated one, too, full of unexpected dark comedy with which the premise wouldn't seem to align.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of McDormand in that. Mildred is the take-no-shit female lead we need now maybe more than ever. Her parental grief drives her actions, but there's a thread of anarchic mischief. If the world isn't fair, why play that way?

Rockwell manages to stand out in a superb supporting cast that includes Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage and more. He's an actor not afraid to play a deeply unlikable character and then drag the audience into reluctant empathy.

“Three Billboards” is as fine a piece of storytelling as we've seen this year, and it's added to a growing great Class of 2018 films.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Opens Friday

5 stars out of 5