If there’s only one person who could have played Mildred Hayes, it’s Frances McDormand. McDormand is enormous in the role of Mildred Hayes, a flawed but fierce protagonist who is so rock solid, but shattered underneath what she eventually reveals to be a pure façade. One of the greatest moments in McDormand’s turn is the moment when she battles to save her trio of billboards as they inexplicably go up in flames. The battle is futile, but to her it’s everything. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a poetic, and occasionally darkly funny film about revenge, as well as the fallout and the ripple effect that reactionary anger to tragedy can have. Much of Mildred Hayes’ life since we met her has been spent with a lot of anger and fury, and she’s been kept awake by the nagging notion that she may never get resolution on one horrendous period of her life.
Seven months earlier her only daughter was raped, burned alive, and murdered, and the authorities have yet to find the culprit or culprits. When we meet Mildred she’s livid, and souring every moment she’s awake. She has spent every day watching her life fall apart, including her marriage, her relationship with her son, and her remaining friendships. After a certain period in her sleepy town of Ebbing, Missouri, she decides she’s going to push the fates a bit and decides to buy three billboards on a back road near her town. The three billboards question why nearly a year has gone by without any answers. Although the billboards are a righteous idea, Mildred is playing with fire, considering her town’s police department is more like a club than law enforcement.
Director and writer Martin McDonagh is not prone to letting the characters off so easily, and everyone within Mildred’s path suffers or is affected by her journey in some way. The more we delve in to the concept of anger, grief, and revenge, the more “Three Billboards…” develops in to a much more complicated predicament where nothing is ever as cut and dry as it seems. Things especially take a sad turn when Mildred and the town learn the chief is suffering from terminal cancer. The question ultimately stares her in the face of “should she let him off the hook because he’s dying or continue her questioning of his abilities as a chief?” Mildred, like every other grieving individual, is faced with what she said to her daughter before she died, what she should have said, and what she would have said. And the pain on her face while confronting that nagging regret is a part of what makes her journey so compelling and disastrous from the outset.
McDonagh compiles a wonderful ensemble cast of brilliant actors, including McDormand who is developed in a starker shade of gray the more the film’s narrative progresses. There’s also Woody Harrelson a man facing the abrupt end of a seemingly happy life, and has to contend with Mildred who is not content with letting him off the hook, despite his terminal illness. I also feel I must mention Sam Rockwell whose performance is purely Oscar worthy, as a man child with an oedipal relationship with his mother who can be a good man if he stopped being his own worst enemy. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is compelling, and richly drawn drama about characters smashing in to one another in a world that doesn’t make sense, seeking resolution where there may never be any. They can either continue fighting among themselves, or eventually regain sight of their priorities.