You should know before watching “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” that Ebbing isn’t a real place. This makes sense because the film looks like North Carolina, where it was filmed, rather than the state in its title. (“Winter’s Bone,” for instance, is a film that looks like Missouri.)
The dislocation affects not only the setting of Martin McDonagh’s new film, but also the dialogue. McDonagh, an Irish playwright who has also made the films “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” writes black comedies full of foul-mouthed fishes out of water speaking stagey McDonaghese, whether they’re meant to be in Belgium, Los Angeles or the rural Midwest.
Artificial or not, in Ebbing you can commission three orange billboards with black block letters reading: “Raped while dying” / “And still no arrests” / “How come, Chief Willoughby?” and put them up in view of that Chief’s domicile.
The billboards are ordered by Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, who wears the steely resolve of a very talented actress who has decided it’s about time to win another Oscar), a mother mourning a teenage daughter recently murdered in awful fashion.
Mildred is prone to wearing work jumpsuits and always speaking in a harangue. She certainly overpowers billboard advertising salesperson Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), a gentle soul reading Flannery O’Connor in his office until she barges in asking about what she can and can’t put on her unique advertisements.
Mildred then, memorably, spits hellfire on a visiting Catholic priest, comparing church culture to that of the Los Angeles gangs who protect their own rather than respect any laws. He does not call again.
She finally locks horns with a worthy adversary, Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, proving again he is one of the best working American actors). He patiently reviews with Mildred her daughter’s case, and how he established no local person could have committed the crime. She says, in one of her many unhinged soliloquys, “If it was me, I’d start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ‘em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100 percent certain it was a correct match, then kill him.”
And Bill reasonably replies, “Yeah well, there’s definitely civil rights laws that prevents that.”
You would think you’d root for Mildred but you don’t — you want instead more enjoyable scenes of the Chief playing with his kids and writing charming letters to his wife Anne (Abbie Cornish). But that’s not what we get — there’s arson at a police station, aggravated assault on a dentist (with the dentist’s own drill) and cruelty to a little person (a natty but bewildered Peter Dinklage).
Dinklage’s Jack is among many people not given enough time by Mildred (and, by extension, McDonagh): her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) is not given room for his own mourning, her ex-husband Charles (John Hawkes) is not around enough to show his true cowardice and her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) — seen only in a brief flashback — does not register with us as a living person.
One man who gets plenty of screen time is Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a caricature of a racist cop slathered in sweat and a hick accent, the one person who deserves every kick Mildred delivers.
When the film is funny it is very funny, but when not it’s not pitch black it stumbles, as when Mildred is tending to her billboards and shares a moment with a computer-generated deer.
“Three Billboards” is for better and worse about its small-town characters fussing, fighting and, finally, looking after each other. After all, you need someone to be alive in order to best insult them.