You might not know what to expect from writer-director Martin McDonagh’s films, but you know they will come at you from unexpected, often very dark places. That he manages to mix this all with black comedy and pungent social commentary furthers the appeal of whatever this talented playwright and filmmaker serves up, and that includes his previous two films, In Bruges (for which he got a writing Oscar nomination) and the slightly overcooked Seven Psychopaths. It also includes his latest — and best — film, the memorably titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. 

Frances McDormand brilliantly plays Mildred, the frustrated mother of a daughter who was raped and murdered in a case local law enforcement seems unable to crack. This leads her to take out three jagged billboards just outside of town in which she points to the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) for botching the case after nine months, and thus putting him in a very public noose. Things at the office aren’t helping much thanks to Dixon, a hot-wired, racist mama’s boy of a second-in-command played beautifully and with great contradiction by Sam Rockwell. As I say in my video review above, you can add a sterling supporting cast of pros including John Hawkes as her ex-husband who’s now shacked up with a bimbo; Abbie Cornish as Harrelson’s wife; Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son; Peter Dinklage as an unlikely admirer; and many more who make this offbeat but always on-target dramedy completely watchable.

McDonagh does not present characters who are black or white; all of these people have deep shades of gray. Mildred would seem to have the audience on her side, except when she takes things too much in hand and goes out of control in uncomfortable ways. Conversely, Dixon is drawn three-dimensionally as a person on the wrong side of things who is capable of finding redemption. McDonagh’s outstanding script also isn’t afraid to go off the wall, as it were, particularly in scenes with Dinklage that are as poignant as they are pointed. Mildred, as willed to life by McDormand’s take-no-prisoners acting turn, is simply a great screen character, and she sells it for all its worth. McDonagh has a way with a line that is without compare, and he has put together a cast who knows how to sock it home. Harrelson is excellent with a character who also takes unexpected turns that we aren’t prepared for.

It is fun to note that McDonagh got the idea for the film when he was traveling through America on a bus and saw billboards like these sitting out there just waiting for someone to pay attention to the message. That is where the truth ends and the fiction he has created begins. It is one helluva ride.

Three Billboards premiered in Venice, then slayed the Toronto International Film Festival, where it took the all-important People’s Choice Award. I can see why. Producers are McDonagh Graham Broadbend, and Peter Czernin. Fox Searchlight takes it out in limited release today.

Do you plan to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ? Let us know what you think.