At one point in writer-director Martin McDonagh’s black comic drama, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an ex-cop who’s pretty much the definition of useless fuck-up, cringes as his mother (Sandy Martin) spits out racist nonsense and tries to tell the old lady that the South’s changed. ‘Well, it shouldn’t have,’ she snarls. Earlier, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) tried to needle the deputy, who has evidently earned bad headlines, by asking ‘how’s the nigger-torturing business going?’ only to be told ‘it’s person-of-colour-torturing business now.’ This self-aware prissiness is an early sign of a hard-earned change of heart that brings two deeply antagonist characters together for a fade-out road trip and a lady-or-the-tiger conundrum that will stick with you. A human connection which seemed impossible has been made. In that sense, this small town story is almost a romantic comedy. But it’s also possible that the road they’re taking will be a bloody horror.
Based loosely on a still-unresolved Texas case, this has hard-up divorcee tough nut Mildred so exasperated by the local law’s failure to solve her daughter’s murder that she rents out three dilapidated billboards by the side of a road nobody travels anymore to nag police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into further action. She gets on the local news, and the cop – who is dying of pancreatic cancer – admits that the case still troubles him. When he patiently explains that no leads have turned up, Mildred bluntly suggests taking the DNA of every man in town – hell, every man in the country – and testing it against samples taken from the corpse. ‘There’s civil rights laws that prevents that,’ says the cop, but Mildred presses on with her vision of putting the DNA of every man born on a database and, ‘as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.’ She’s so intent on her own pain – which is fuelled by guilt that she didn’t get on with the dead girl – that she’s willing to go into very dark places to get some brand of justice. We also understand why, even before the worst happened, Mildred has burned her bridges with so many people in town – including daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton), who walked into peril because Mom wouldn’t let her use the car.
In the case that inspired the film, the father of a murdered woman not only put up billboards demanding police action but named the man he thought was the culprit – which would make an interesting drama in itself, but inevitably boil down to a ‘didhedoit’. Here, Mildred’s message sets off chain reactions of resentment, cruelty, farce and violence … and the film doesn’t take the easy way out of making its heroine a long-suffering martyr who finally prevails, in that her actions make things worse for herself, Willoughby and eventually the whole rest of the town. The presence of the billboards prompts protests and gossip, and ill-thought-through actions which rebound horribly. A fat dentist has his own drill turned on him. Mildred’s kindly boss (Amanda Warren) gets busted for possession of two joints. Tit for tat arsons go wrong, spectacularly. Willoughby’s wife (Abbie Cornish) doesn’t appreciate her husband’s last days being blighted by the angry woman. Red (Caleb Landry Jones), the nice guy who rents Mildred the boards, gets thrown out of a window and beaten in the street. And what seem like conventional developments as a competent black police chief (Clarke Peters) shows up to takeover the case and a sinister stranger (Brendon Sexton III) shows up looking every inch the guilty rapist-murderer. But neither of these threads pan out the way you expect. And the same goes for Mildred’s date with ‘the town midget’ (Peter Dinklage) at a swish restaurant where her ex-husband (John Hawkes) is also dining with his teenage new girlfriend (Samara Weaving).
It’s McDonagh’s strategy to present characters who ought to be monsters but then show them in a nuanced, sympathetic light even as it’s revealed they’re still capable of terrible things. The film juxtaposes comedy and tragedy to great effect, and keeping the balance means that it’s impossible to tell how any given scene will pan out – when Mildred walks across a room gripping a bottle of wine by the neck, it’s impossible not to feel dread. And yet, like McDonagh’s hit man comedy shaggy dog story In Bruges, it’s quotably hilarious throughout – Mildred’s speech about the sins of the Catholic church, delivered to the mild priest who wants her to ease off, is a gem of vicious invective. Almost every white person in the film tells Mildred not to do what she’s doing – including her surviving son (Lucas Hedges) and all of Willoughby’s loyal subordinates (including the always-welcome Zeljko Ivanek) – while almost every black person keeps their head down and is quietly supportive of her, if only because their South doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. This is built around a forceful, imposing, uncomfortable, hilarious turn from McDormand, but it’s cast in depth with incredible strength – with Rockwell edging out of the pack as Dixon, who’d be a joke villain in a conventional movie, emerges as a fascinating, ghastly, deeply human character.