There are three billboards outside the small town of Ebbing in Missouri that are not being used, in fact they haven't been in use since the nineteen-eighties, so middle-aged shopkeeper Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) decides to do something about it, because she has something she would like to advertise. That something is the fact that her daughter has been lying dead in her grave for nearly a year now and the police still have not solved the case, so she pays the owner of the site to put up a message asking Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) what he is going to do about the unsolved rape and murder. The answer to that is less than forthcoming - but a lot of anger is.
Playwright turned director Martin McDonagh had, by the point this was released, carved out a niche for himself as the creator of black comedy drama with a violent edge, and for many this was his finest example of that style so far, securing star McDormand a clutch of awards for her trouble, including her second Oscar in a lead role. Although not everyone was convinced, it remained a brave stab at presenting a story that was not going to be wrapped up neatly with a bow, as so much in life is not, and the whole mess that many people's lives resolve themselves into was very clearly what he, as a writer, was attempting to convey. So there were loose ends and coincidences abounding.
If you have experienced life like that, then you would more probably respond to the film better than someone who prefers order in their days, and can even perceive that, cling on to it in fact, when events take an abrupt turn into chaos. Mildred, we see, is anguished for a number of reasons all to do with her daughter's murder, not least because the last thing she said to her as the girl stormed out was that she hoped she got raped; now, nobody says that knowing it's going to happen, nobody sane and without malice corrupting their souls anyway, but there are people like that in this universe and it just so happens that is who the daughter meets, the senselessness of the crime all the more harrowing.
McDormand was, needless to say, an absolute dynamo here, initially worrying she was too old for the role but her lived in looks contributed well to the character of a woman who has been through Hell and has not necessarily come back. In fact, although she is not languishing in her daughter's victimhood and her own grief, it is apparent how comfortable she is as the thorn in the side of a community which has become corroded from the Sheriff's Department down, the local cops being an unlovely group of bullies who use the law and its influence to get away with some particularly bad behaviour. Willoughby is not necessarily a bad man at heart, but it takes a terminal illness to wake him up to the fact he has been derelict in his duties, and part of that has seen the victim's killers walk free.
His deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell, who also snagged an Oscar) is a different matter, just about excused his racism and violence here because he is an idiot who has never learned any better, more party to the sin of ignorance than hate, but it was his redemption that proved controversial as having a racist character who learns the error of his ways was not what many wanted to see: they wanted him to be punished, not team up with the increasingly wayward Mildred, or any of the other decent individuals (Peter Dinklage had some lovely moments as the "town midget" who is doomed never to be taken seriously). But the mark of a captivating screenplay is whether you were turned off by its predictability or the actions of morally shaded characters, and it was more likely the latter that irritated the naysayers: those who appreciated a plot that took unexpected routes would find this very appealing. It had the benefit of many laugh out loud lines, a generosity that maybe went too far, and while it was essentially one of those modern Westerns at heart, a resistance to cliché that was refreshing. Music by Carter Burwell.