In the opening scene of Martin McDonagh’s comic drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Mildred Hayes (a perfectly cast Frances McDormand) visits a local sign printing shop. She’s about to purchase space on the titular billboards, posting signs criticizing the local police for failing to solve her daughter’s murder. As the tough, coverall-clad Mildred bluntly discusses terms with the shop owner, she notices an overturned beetle struggling on the windowsill. She lifts a finger toward it, but rather than kill the insect, she turns it over and lets it crawl away.
Three Billboards is a movie about the festering effects of injustice and rage, and this surprisingly tender moment is an example of how those themes have shaped Mildred, its protagonist. She’s unrelenting, generous with her curse words, and could easily beat up most men in her small town. But she’s not a mean woman. Rather, she’s been weathered and sharpened by circumstance — by an abusive ex-husband, by single motherhood, and, finally, her daughter’s unsolved murder.
Mildred rents the three billboards down the road from her house to cover with messages shaming the local police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), in hopes of galvanizing the department into action. She merely irritates the sympathetic Willoughby, but infuriates Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim officer with racist and homophobic tendencies and an anger management problem. As tensions escalate and anger begets violence (which begets more violence), Mildred and Dixon are each forced to address the deeper issues inside them that fuel their actions.
The main characters of Three Billboards are angry at situations outside their control. Dixon feels emasculated by having to move back in with his mother after his father’s death, compounded by a lack of intelligence that causes everyone to disregard him. He’s fiercely defensive of what little power he does have, and of the people who have given it to him. Mildred burns with rage not just out of grief, but at a life defined by the cruelty of others. Her righteous anger encompasses any institution she perceives has harmed people who did nothing to deserve it, from the police to the catholic church. It’s worth noting that McDormand’s performance in the role is one of the best this year; she’s raw, grounded, and wickedly funny.
Writer/Director Martin McDonagh’s past films and plays exhibit a bitter, blackly comic sensibility that also colors his latest. He shows the selfishness of Dixon’s and Mildred’s escalating outbursts as they affect the lives of those around them, and calls into question the righteousness of Mildred’s crusade. However, despite his observations, McDonagh never offers a counter strategy. Mildred starts to recognize the effects of her actions, but she’s never emotionally honest about them, with herself, or with others. Even Dixon’s third-act redemption comes in the form of vigilante justice.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has been in development for a number of years, but arrives at a time when righteous anger is riding high. Mildred’s frustrated “burn it all” attitude and Dixon’s anger at his threatened privilege reflect the feelings of many people in our country right now. The film offers an artistic expression of that anger and division, but not a satisfactory resolution. Here, justice (when it comes at all) doesn’t mean humility or grace, but violence that never satisfies its characters, and probably never will.