The driving dramatic force in “Three Billboards” has already taken place before the movie even started. There’s only one flashback in the film, and that’s not even to the gruesome rape and murder that took the daughter of Mildred, played by Frances McDormand. Instead, the flashback takes us to a few hours before, during an argument between Mildred and Angela (Kathryn Newton) before the feisty teen daughter heads off, never to be seen again.
The movie we get is set seven months from then, with Mildred coping with the aftermath in an consistent, aggravated state. She’s pays a local ad company to install billboards criticizing Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his lack of progress in finding her daughter’s killer. Naturally, this gets everyone riled up, like the racist brute Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) or Robbie (Lucas Hedges), Mildred’s other child who has to deal with the social brunt of the billboards at school. These rickety, wooden billboards, located on a street no one drives through in a town no one wants to visit, act as a wound and a stitch, both the hammer and the nail to build the purging that Ebbing so desperately needs.
It’s a movie that turns expectations on their head. We learn early on that Dixon is one of the more racist members of the police force. In fact, he’d be a full-blown member of the Alt Right if the slow Ebbing internet allowed him to connect to 4Chan. Instead, he takes out his brunt and anger on Mildred and any non-white folk in a 10-mile radius. But we don’t fully understand the tragedy of his character until the final act of the film. The first two-thirds were spent making us hate Dixon, and now director/writer Martin McDonagh is asking us to like him. The inverse happens with Mildred, starting off as tragic and empathetic, and slowly careening towards the point where her actions aren’t funny but inexcusable. While most films give their characters an arc, Mildred makes his come full circle, and then some.
“Three Billboards is a challenging movie. It does not focus on solving a crime as much as the damaged victims who try to be solvers of that crime. It questions how do people find purpose and meaning after they’ve experienced massive loss, of where their morality lies and who their sense of duty is beholden to. The film honestly feels like it’s going to end at three or four different points throughout. But, when you’re sitting there with the closing image and the credits start rolling, you’ll look back and think “How did ‘Three Billboards’ EVER manage to take us here?” And in trying to find that answer, you’ll come face-to-face with the film’s soft-spoken greatness.