The story is essentially one of a single, powerless individual lashing out at a system which has failed her, causing a ripple effect which results in everything from violence and death, to the personal reclamation of an apparent villain. In the process, the entire town of Ebbing becomes divided against itself as its residents take sides, sometimes with tragic results, sometimes darkly comic ones – often, in McDonagh’s typical style, a combination of both.
Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a woman whose teenaged daughter was abducted, raped, and murdered the previous year. The murderer has not been found, and Mildred, frustrated and angry by what she sees as police inaction, rents a row of billboards on which she displays protests against their lack of success. We are never shown the murder, and only a brief flashback of the time prior to the crime; the story begins when Mildred decides to make her statement, and goes on to deal with the repercussions.
The three billboards become central, representing the conflicts between police and residents, but also, as the film continues, the conflict between local men and women, between Mildred and her son, her ex-husband, and her friends, and between the town’s various factions. Many of Mildred’s neighbours try to support her but are put off by her growing level of obsession. The storyline grows more complex as other characters are, one by one, drawn into Mildred’s vendetta, and suffer the consequences. Violence is graphic and sometimes extreme, its ridiculous excesses part of the black comedy that shows itself at unexpected moments.
Frances McDormand’s performance is a highlight of the film. She plays the dour, hostile Mildred in a way that displays her rage and impatience frankly but without dulling the edge of humour in her perpetual antagonism; and yet allows for some sympathy with Mildred’s hidden grief and self-reproach. She is supported by a great ensemble cast featuring Woody Harrelson as the flawed but honest local sheriff, and Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s unhappy and long-suffering son, who shares his mother’s grief but is infuriated by her means of dealing with it. McDormand’s most effective co-star is certainly Sam Rockwell as an unbalanced member of the local police, which he plays, frighteningly and hilariously, as comically inept and emotionally fragile, and at the same time genuinely violent and dangerous.
The storyline, while engrossing and tightly woven, does have its weak points. The writing occasionally resorts to some fairly heavy-handed material, using very conventional examples of coincidence, irony, or sentiment, which stand out in an otherwise unconventional script. The tendency to exaggerate characters’ reactions for emotional or comic effect is a bit exaggerated: it can become exhausting when every mishap causes a reflex to commit mayhem. The violence is often purposely over-the-top. Even Mildred’s relentlessly bad-tempered persona may be just a little overdone. Still, these flaws are not enough to undercut the appeal of strong characters in an authentic and original story.