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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review: Martin McDonagh's gut-twisting comedy will make you stand up and hoot

Robbie Collin
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Film Stills

Dir: Martin McDonagh; Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Clarke Peters, John Hawkes. Cert 15, 110 mins.

Some films have a heat that makes you shrink from the cinema screen. After watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I had to check my eyebrows were intact.

In the wake of his acclaimed 2015 theatre piece Hangmen, the British-Irish filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh has come blazing back to the cinema with this outstanding cinder-black revenger’s comedy – which as of this week, with four Golden Globes and eight Bafta nominations in the bank, has nosed its way to the front of the jostling Oscar pack.

Even more so than McDonagh’s first film, the Pinteresque hitman comedy In Bruges, Three Billboards feels like a kind of high-intensity comedic circuit training, and causes strains and burns in ethical muscles you didn’t even realise you had. It is a film that continually forces you to interrogate your own reactions to it – both in terms of what you’re laughing at and why, and also in the way its characters continually defy your burnt-in expectations of what they’d do, and what might be done to them in turn, in a better-behaved, more formulaic script.

At first, you think you know where things are going. Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who wages war on her local police department after their investigation into her teenage daughter’s rape and murder putters to a halt.

Riding into town with a twang and a chime from Carter Burwell’s playful spaghetti-western score, she walks into the local advertising agency like a gunslinger moseying into a saloon – an early nod to the notion of frontier justice the film will later messily upend, like a bar-room table in a brawl.

After some vinegary back-and-forth, the firm’s young proprietor (Caleb Landry Jones) rents her a trio of dilapidated hoardings on the town’s outskirts, onto which she pastes a message to the local sheriff, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), designed to shame him and his officers into action.

Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The stage is set for a battle of wills on a Godzilla-versus-King Kong scale, and the film obligingly plays along at first. Dressed in no-nonsense Rosie the Riveter overalls, Mildred is on what she assumes is a straightforward quest: she wants justice and/or revenge – if the two are even different things – and is prepared to burn down the entire town in pursuit of both. And Willoughby, a family man with an iron will and an allergy to stupidity, is a worthy rival.

When he and Mildred finally lock horns, both seem to savour the prospect: it’s like watching two ravenous diners sit down to bloody steak. You sense the same appetite in the actors too: the magnificent McDormand is on Fargo-level form, making you feel Mildred’s pain in every word and pause, but never stooping to beg for your sympathy, even while delivering the kind of slow-build righteous monologues that make you want to stand up and hoot. 

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Though you’ll know them when they happen, Harrelson’s best moments are harder to discuss because they come when McDonagh sends the story screeching off in some wholly unexpected directions, many needlingly provocative, one laceratingly sad. All involve to a degree Willoughby’s blockheaded deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a vindictive racist and homophobe who seems to be in the job purely for its skull-cracking possibilities.

On stage and screen alike, McDonagh’s worlds have always bustled with grotesques: his maddening second film, the mega-meta Seven Psychopaths, felt like a parade thrown in their honour. Dixon is far from the only one in Ebbing. Most of the place’s residents fit the description one way or another, from Mildred’s abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) and his zookeeper trophy girlfriend (Samara Weaving), to our heroine’s admirer, a lovesick used car dealer played by Peter Dinklage.

The lone exception – and the film’s one weak spot – is the character of Willoughby’s wife (Abbie Cornish), who feels so weirdly at odds with the film around her that it’s hard to even guess at what the actress and McDonagh were aiming at.

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Not that anyone blends in, exactly. An observation made by the Irish critic Mic Moroney in 1997 about McDonagh’s early plays – that they combine “the endlessly unravelling murder mysteries of Twin Peaks…with the relentless serial iconoclasm of Father Ted” – holds even more true for this latest piece, in which Mildred’s initial single-mindedness keeps snagging on the lives of people around her, friends and crackpots alike, while the neat, “right” conclusion she was aiming for grows ever more mirage-like.

This, I suspect, is the cause of the backlash that has been bubbling merrily away since the film’s American release last November, which takes exception to a certain character’s 11th-hour redemption – although you could argue (and I certainly would) that what actually happens isn’t a straightforward redemption at all. 

Yes, the film stings. It’s supposed to. But McDonagh lets no-one, least of all his audience, off the hook.