Frances McDormand’s face is one of the first things you see in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and it’s impossible not to be struck by its pure decency.
Perhaps it’s a result of all the other roles we’ve seen this fearless actress play wrapped into one. You look at her face and think: This person has a moral compass. Her side is the right one. We will be safe there.
And that’s the way it seems for a while in “Three Billboards,” until suddenly it isn’t quite so simple. It’s a credit both to writer/director Martin McDonagh and to McDormand’s revelatory performance — her best since her Oscar-winning turn in “Fargo” — that we don’t see this coming nearly soon enough to steel ourselves.
McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a mother who has suffered unimaginable loss: the rape and murder of her teen daughter. The film begins seven months later, as Mildred notices three dilapidated billboards as she’s driving down a little-used road.
She heads to the town advertising office, and hands over a wad of cash. Soon those billboards will be painted bright red and emblazoned with three messages: “Raped While Dying.” “And Still No Arrests?” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”
A grieving mother searching for answers from a lazy police force. What could be wrong with that? Our righteous anger intensifies as a self-satisfied priest comes to her home and explains that she’s out of line. Mildred lectures right back and then she tells him to get the #$% out of her kitchen. This is Mildred’s go-to stance: Fight back, no matter how profane or even violent she needs to get.
So much for black and white. “Three Billboards” is a study in gray. Willoughby (an excellent Woody Harrelson) comes to visit Mildred, and he’s a decent guy. The billboards are plain unfair, he tells her — it’s not easy to catch a killer.
Mildred and the chief, at least, have a grudging respect for each other. The same can’t be said for her relationship with Officer Dixon, a hapless, moronic, racist, dangerously temperamental and buffoonishly violent Mama’s boy, played with complexity and finesse by Sam Rockwell in a constantly surprising performance.
Most of “Three Billboards” takes place in the present, but there is one brief flashback to Mildred’s life before the murder. It is utterly devastating and speaks to the idea that the most inconsequential words that we utter at the most inconsequential times can have consequences so dire, we might never recover from them.
There are no clear heroes here, and no clear villains, and needless to say, one should not expect to take away any easy lessons, either.
Except perhaps this: there’s no better time than right now for a high-profile movie led by a meaty, complicated female character, and no better actress than McDormand to take it on. And you can put that on a billboard.
‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’
Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.