A person can be composed of a set of perfectly good facial features and still be basically ugly, and that’s the case with Mildred (Frances McDormand) in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Short hair tied up with a bandanna, dressed in coveralls as if she worked at a Jiffy Lube instead of an Ozarks gift shop, Mildred has a sudden inspiration to harass the police force in her town. Seven months previously, her daughter was raped and burned to death, and no one has been arrested yet. She decides to tell the police chief off through a set of billboards. This embarrasses the terminally ill Andy Griffith-like chief (Woody Harrelson) revered in the town because (or in spite of) the local police’s reputation as torturers of black prisoners. Dixon, his assistant—a drunk and sometimes vicious Barney Fife, well-played by Sam Rockwell—is far more angry.
Through her bereavement, Mildred has a license to spit venom. It’s a role that runs a small gamut. There are little nuggets of surprise embedded in the monotony of her forcefulness. It is a powerful part: Kicking kids in the balls, throwing firebombs, maiming a dentist and usually having the last word.
One moment of tenderness has Mildred addressing a deer, telling it and the audience that she doesn’t believe it’s a reincarnation of her lost daughter. Yet there is the deer—we’ve seen the symbol of hope, and director/writer Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) gets it both ways.
The surroundings are all rural loveliness, soaked in Carter Burwell’s score. Caleb Landry Jones, of Byzantium, is a relief from the ambient overheatedness as a self-amused billboard salesman. Harrelson is at his most benign as the police chief, even if McDonagh is at his roughest when he tries to write tenderly.