With his hit films, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, British writer-director Martin McDonagh established his reputation for pitch-black comedy, powered by vividly original characters and a peerless flair for tangy, highly quotable dialogue. All those qualities are present and correct in his new picture, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which has been garnering major buzz on the autumn festival circuit, including winning the People’s Choice Award at Toronto.
Not to diminish McDonagh’s previous work, but there’s a reason that his new film is being acclaimed as something extra special: its depth. Three Billboards is just as smartly entertaining as anything we have come to expect from McDonagh, but it’s also richer and more emotionally fulfilling – and that’s largely down to the incredible protagonist at the heart of the story.
Meet Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a gift-shop manager in small-town Missouri, who is grieving over the brutal murder of her only daughter. Six months later and with no leads in the case, she takes matters into her own hands, renting the titular advertising hoardings to challenge the seeming inactivity of Ebbing’s police chief (Woody Harrelson). The sheriff reacts with surprising calm, but Mildred excites the ire of one of his deputies, Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a chronic underachiever. Caught in the crossfire are many of the townsfolk, including Mildred’s embarrassed teenage son (Manchester By The Sea’s Lucas Hedges), her ex-husband (John Hawkes), her new suitor (Peter Dinklage) and the young businessman (Caleb Landry Jones) who was brave – or foolish – enough to rent her those billboards.
The role of Mildred was specially written for McDormand, and the resilient, determined, salty-mouthed character gives the actress her best role since Fargo – one that has elicited a performance that ranks alongside her famous pregnant Minnesota police chief. No wonder that she is emerging as the favourite for this year’s Best Actress Oscar.
As impressive as McDormand is in the film, hers is not the only reputation being burnished here. Harrelson brings a lot of nuance and texture to his police-chief role, and his name is likewise popping up in Oscar conversation. His main competition could turn out to be Rockwell, playing a character who undergoes the biggest arc of any in the film, and who reveals hidden depths.
McDonagh is now firmly established as one of the best directors of actors working in Hollywood today. If there’s a more fully accomplished film vying for top honours in this year’s awards race, this critic has yet to see it.