Set in the fictional town of Ebbing in Missouri, USA, writer-director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges) black comedy is provocative and audacious. But it’s mostly a triumph of sharp writing and remarkable performances.

It’s some months after the death of her daughter, and Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is still seeking closure and retribution. The film opens with music evocative of old westerns. A woman in overalls and unkempt hair strides into the office of an advertising agency. In order to jolt the local law enforcement she books three disused billboards and places three provocative messages on them that polarise this small town.

When officer Dixon drives by, he sees the billboards being renovated. He asks Jerome, the workman who’s pasting the sheets, what it is. “Advertising, I guess," he says. “Advertising what," asks Dixon. “Something obscure?" speculates Jerome.

Ebbing could be any small town anywhere. McDonagh’s idea is to build on the universality of the emotions and spotlight the unexpected reactions of the characters. The crime is still occupying emotional space in the town: some are connected to Mildred through pain and loss, others through guilt.

Principal among them is the sheriff, who, by virtue of his office, is squarely in Mildred’s crosshairs. The relationship between Mildred and Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is, to borrow McDonagh’s metaphor, akin to a chess game. It’s a cleverly designed dance between the unpopular Mildred and Willoughby, who has the town’s sympathy. After a long while we get to see Harrelson play it straight and fine.

Then there is the chaos around officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist, violent mama’s boy of a cop. Politically incorrect and cocky about his position, his disinterest is exemplified in the scene where he says he has recorded complaints about the billboards. When the sheriff asks him who has complained, Dixon replies, “A lady with a funny eye, and a fat dentist." He’s a touch over-the-top at times, but McDonagh uses Dixon’s character arc to explore the theme of redemption.

Other notable characters in ensemble are Mildred’s neglected son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), Red (Caleb Landry-Jones), the owner of the advertising agency, an unwitting pawn in the bloody battle of three billboards and the town midget James (Peter Dinklage), a kindly suitor.

If often feels like McDonagh is channelling David Lynch, but within the black humour, the unwavering through-line is a mother’s determination to obtain justice for the crime that has left her daughter six feet under. But is revenge the only absolution? To this end, McDonagh subverts and surprises. You think you can see the roadmap, but it’s far from predictable.

When the blackness and contortions are laid on a little too thick (which they are at times), Harrelson and McDormand temper the material with their performances. As much as the script is the star here, so is McDormand. She doesn’t hold back, taking Mildred Hayes off the printed page and subsuming her with fire—the wild kind. Mildred is not the clichéd grieving mother. She’s far from sentimental and weak, having converted her pain to anger and defiance.

McDonagh takes the audience’s loyalty and swings it around, taking you on an emotionally volatile, but fascinating, drive-by in rural America.

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