In his follow-up feature after Seven Psycopaths (2012) and the Oscar-nominated In Bruges, Martin McDonagh teams up with Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, John Hawkins and Sam Rockwell to create a story about justice, perseverance and holding your own against all corrupt forces. The result is a mixed bag of great performances and an uneven, a bit-much storyline that struggles to maintain momentum as the story unfolds. It takes a few questionable plot points and McDonagh makes a few bizarre storyline choices but is able to pull off a funny and amusing film for the most part.
In a role McDonagh has written especially for her, McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a broken-hearted mother who lost her daughter after a horrific murder that remains unsolved. Months passed and the culprit in not determined in the case. Refusing to let the whole matter go, Hayes goes for a bold and creative move: painting three signs leading into her towns with a controversial message directed at the town’s respected – and feared - chief of police William Willoughby. Later, his second in-command Officer Dixon, who has a knack for violence, is involved and a fierce battle kicks off between the Hayes family and Ebbing’s law enforcement.
McDonagh opts for a dark comic tone to tell the story and he succeeds at first in creating a fascinating character in Mildred Hayes. Foul-mouthed, audacious and steely, she is a woman who will fight until the very last breath to get what she wants – and that’s one of the film’s most compelling aspects. But the film takes a few questionable story points which may put off some viewers – mainly when McDormand starts resorting to violence after her character first takes the free-speech, peaceful route.
McDonagh’s choice of telling the story in a way that does not focus on the crime is an interesting one – it pays off in the first half but by the credits roll, it is not completely satisfying. It leaves several questions unanswered and tells us more about the cops on the case than what really happened and more importantly who is Mildred Hayes. We see her anger and determination – but her character could have used a bit more of a backstory so the audience could connect more to the overall plot. If it wasn’t for McDormand’s tremendous performance, it could have turned one-dimensional but McDormand brings in one of her best performances in a scene-chewing, showy role that should make her part of the awards conversation by the end of the year. She shows a wide range of internal emotions and has a commanding presence on screen.
Other performances are solid across the board with Rockwell and Harrelson delivering strong supporting characters. Lucas Hedges and John Hawkins are underused and we don’t end up knowing much about them.
The film could be a nice, modest box office success as it is more accessible than McDonagh’s previous works, yet its questionable story points could prevent it from being a clowdpleaser.
Verdict: Featuring a standout performance by Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is an uneven story with memorable scenes, questionable story points and a showcase for a brilliant actress at the top of her game.