- Fox Searchlight Pictures
As the camera glides over a winding two-lane road, the film’s opening scene zeroes in on Mildred Hayes (McDormand), with furrowed brow and chewing furiously on a fingernail while driving past three ramshackle billboards, and we can see the glimmer of an idea taking form in her mind. Mildred is the heartbroken mother of a teenage girl whose rape and murder months earlier has yet to be solved. In her grief, she decides on a plan to shame the small-town police chief (Woody Harrelson) into action. Her plan upsets the community; disturbs her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who has tried to remain comfortably numb in the wake of his sister’s death; and embarrasses her ex-husband (John Hawkes), who, annoyingly, has taken up with a 19-year-old know-nothing (Samara Weaving). Dressed perpetually in blue coveralls and bearing a stern facial expression, Mildred wears her anguish like a protective armor plate. She is fearsome and gives no quarter to anyone offering sympathy — not the police chief who has late-stage cancer, nor the priest who comes offering compassion. To her way of thinking, all who have not participated in solving her daughter’s murder are culpable for the crime. McDormand embodies a tenacious but flawed character who does not fear unlikability, and in doing so, creates one of the most memorable personages in her incomparable career (one that includes Fargo’s Marge Gunderson and the titular Olive Kitteridge).
In his third feature film, acclaimed stage director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) exercises his penchant for combining comedy, crime, and coarse language and ideas. Despite Mildred’s palpable sorrow, Three Billboards takes delight in puncturing shibboleths and expectations. The film also features a couple of priceless doofuses who milk comedy from every second onscreen: in particular, Sam Rockwell’s bigoted patrolman Jason Dixon, who’s a mama’s boy and his own worst enemy, and the new girlfriend of Mildred’s ex, who confuses things like polo and polio. A comparison of the matriarchal forces played by McDormand and Dixon’s frightful mother (Sandy Martin) might also prove illuminating in this first film for which McDonagh has written leading roles for female characters.