As you’d expect from a film about a murder investigation, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is shocking to watch at times – I’ve never been to a cinema showing where the audience have had such strong, emotional reactions – but possibly what’s most shocking is how funny this film is.
The premise of the film seems like a standard crime thriller at first: it’s been seven months since Mildred Hayes’ (played by Frances McDormand) daughter was found raped and murdered, but the police haven’t been able to track down the killer and thus have made no arrests. Pretty quickly the film’s uniqueness becomes clear: driving home one day along the very road where her daughter’s body was discovered, Hayes is inspired to rent three old, crumbling billboards, using them to question the efficacy of the local police department and singling out the Sheriff, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Willoughby is well-respected and has ailing health, so many of the townspeople, including Mildred’s abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), turn against her, but Mildred stays strong and refuses to take them down. The ensuing fallout is alternately heart-wrenching, horrifying and hilarious.
It’s a fictional story, but the way the viewers’ emotions are sent through hope and despair, joy and misery, anger and surprise, show how powerful Three Billboards and its performances are. McDormand gives a star turn for which she’s already won the Best Actress Golden Globe, and support shines in the form of Sam Rockwell as an immature police officer, Peter Dinklage as a friend of Mildred’s and Abbie Cornish as Chief Willoughby’s wife. The film is beautifully shot too, with gorgeous cinematographic scenes of lush Missouri greenery. It also has a special nostalgic feel to it; it took me about 40 minutes to realise it was set in modern times and not the end of last century, but even then, with its focus on a town where most of the action happens on one main street, it feels like a Western standoff film, with Mildred as the underdog gunslinger battling to be recognised. Frankly, it deserves all the awards it gets and then some.