The first thing you should know about the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is that it is from Martin McDonagh, the director and writer of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. In Bruges is one of my family’s favorites and thanks to the movie, we were not only inspired to visit Bruges, Belgium but we spent the entirety of our stay, quoting lines from the movie, which basically made us sound like assholes—somewhat intelligent and funny—but still assholes. This is because that’s where his characters often reside, in the land between hapless assholes and sympathetic jerks. If you loved his movies, as I have, you’ll probably adore Three Billboards.
The best way to describe McDonagh’s sensibility is that he’s a mix of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino. His characters are bad, yes. But his movies are always an exploration of consequences, especially the violence that ensues after thoughtful people do unthinkable things.
In the past McDonagh has written about hit men and gangsters, but Three Billboards is a bit different, in that this time his protagonist is a woman. She is Mildred Hayes, an angry and frustrated mother, played to perfection by Frances McDormand, who wants nothing more than to bring the person(s) who killed her daughter to justice. In order to do this Mildred uses the only weapon she has—shame—and buys ads for three billboards outside of her hometown, asking why her daughter’s murder hasn’t been solved. The target of her ire and frustration is the county sheriff, played by Woody Harrelson who was made for this sort of role, an irritable, but mostly kind man, trying to do his best job in some tough circumstances. Everyone in town has an opinion about the billboards and most of the movie is watching Mildred dealing with their reactions. The story stays fresh in that it zigs when you think it’s going to zag. Sam Rockwell is perfection as the deputy whose character arc grounds the story in today’s era of criminal justice.
The less I tell you about this movie, the better, because it’s in the nuances and the shades of grey where everyone dwells that it gets its power. I love how no one is 100% perfect or evil in this story. Even Mildred wasn’t winning any parent-of-the-year awards before her daughter died, but still, she deserves justice and in finding it, she learns that peace may come from being allowed to be more than the sum of your sins.