By Kim Hughes
No one seeing director Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will be surprised to learn it scored the coveted Grolsch People's Choice Award at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, a bellwether for Oscar glory (see also La La Land, The King's Speech, 12 Years a Slave, and Slumdog Millionaire).
But no award can convey just how terrific this movie is, or the many levels on which it succeeds. (And bless its stubborn heart — the trailer barely hints at the film’s complexity which means audiences get the full impact in the theatre, as it should be).
The basic premise is this: feisty, small-town single mom Mildred Hayes (a dazzling Frances McDormand) is angry and anguished that her daughter’s murder remains unsolved, so she hires the three derelict billboards of the title to prod the town’s chief of police William Willoughby (Woody Harrleson) into action. This triggers the fury of Willoughby’s knuckleheaded sidekick Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who puts into motion events that will propel Mildred (and ancillary players town-wide) in ways no one could have predicted.
From there, the story spirals out in unforeseen directions we dare not reveal but which check every box on the spectrum, from hilarity to heartbreak, pathos to empathy. McDonagh's cast is beyond excellent with ace supports from Lucas Hedges and Peter Dinklage. But much like Fargo — an obvious if thematically different reference point — Three Billboards… is McDormand’s achievement, and as powerful a female lead as we’ve ever seen.
In fact, McDormand’s Mildred is so genuine she’s practically palpable. It’s hard to imagine anyone else accurately hitting so many moving emotional targets but, like Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, Mildred Hayes sees what’s before her for what it is, not what she hopes it might be, even when it hurts. You will laugh, and you will cry. You may not stand up and cheer, but that’s because you’ll be too flattened by this brilliant film’s end to do much else but exhale.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, and Peter Dinklage. Opens November 17 in Toronto; November 22 in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg; and December 1 in Halifax, Ottawa, and Victoria.