Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review violent carnival of small-town America

Frances McDormand is commanding as a woman avenging the murder of her daughter in Martin McDonaghs modern-day western

Frances McDormand gives a powerhouse performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, an uproarious delight of a film that snaps the eyelids up like roller-blinds and had the Venice film festival audience breaking into rounds of spontaneous applause. She plays Mildred Hayes, an angel of vengeance at loggerheads with the world. Lock the door and bolt the windows. Mildred comes rampaging up Main Street like hard-boiled Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock.

Playwright Martin McDonagh won plaudits for his bustling 2008 feature debut, In Bruges but Three Billboards is on a whole other level. The director tosses it into competition, underarm, like a firecracker, where it promptly explodes in a flash of jokes, a splash of blood and a twisting plume of ornate dialogue. It remains to be seen how this one will bed down; how deep an impression it leaves once the smell of cordite has faded. But in the moment, good heavens, this feels like Bonfire night and the Fourth of July.

It has been a year since Mildreds teenaged daughter was murdered. The trail has gone cold and the cops have no leads. So Mildred takes matters into her own hands, renting a trio of dilapidated billboards on Drinkwater Road as a means of shaming the Ebbing police chief to action. Dont ask why she doesnt resort to social media instead. This womans old-school; she comes from pioneer stock.

If the billboards were intended to get Mildred noticed, they are counted a roaring success. The snag is that her fellow citizens are outraged. They adore police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and hate to see him embarrassed particularly when hes suffering with the cancer and all. And if Willoughby is too decent, or tired, to bring this infernal woman to heel, well, others are prepared to do his dirty work. Men such as Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a little man with a gun in his hand, so inept at police paperwork that he lists vital witnesses as fat dentist and the lady with the funny eye. Dixon has recently dodged a conviction for beating up a black suspect. He reckons middle-aged Mildred will present still fewer problems.


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Bold and showboating Woody Harrelson, left, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Those familiar with McDonaghs work will be unsurprised to learn that Three Billboards is a bold and showboating affair, robustly drawn and richly written; a violent carnival of small-town American life. Yet it has a big, beating heart, even a rough-edged compassion for its brawling inhabitants. In the midst of one flaming argument this film contains plenty ailing Chief Willoughby coughs blood into Mildreds face and then apologises, insisting he didnt mean to do it. I know you didnt, baby, Mildred replies, laying a hand on his arm. You suddenly realise they arent enemies, just good friends in dispute. Hard on the heels of that revelation comes a worrying thought: what becomes of this town when faltering Willoughby finally gives up the ghost? When the townsfolk rise up and the volatile Dixon is properly let off the leash? Its going to be like high tea in hell.

Then again, maybe not. Because what is most impressive about McDonaghs movie is its freewheeling nature, its bottle-rocket sensibility; its awareness that people can turn 180 degrees on a dime. Three Billboards sets forth as a modern-day western, complete with mariachi music and a crossfire of hard stares across sleepy Main Street. Then it zigs left to sketch a comic small-town portrait, zags right to become a roguish picaresque. Old assumptions are overturned, unlikely alliances are forged in adversity and some of these characters even get out alive. McDonagh rounds up the survivors and casts them to the wind, in search of a happy ending or another adventure, wherever they land first.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri screened at the <a href=”″ data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Venice film festival, and will be released on 10 November in the US and on 12 January, 2018, in the UK.

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