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“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s” story of a mother’s unconventional war with the world is simple enough, it’s the complexity of the characters that elevates the it to the level of great art.

Academy Award winner Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a fifty-eight year old grieving mother. Seven months after her daughter was abducted, raped and killed the Ebbing, Missouri police have no suspects, no leads. Frustrated, she takes matters into her own hands, renting three billboards on a local road to help “focus their minds.” Against a bright red background and written in bold black letters she sends a message to the local constabulary. “Still No Arrests?” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” “Raped While Dying.”

“The more you keep the case in the public,” she says, “the better chance you have of solving it.”

The billboards aren’t popular with the police or the town folk. Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-witted, hot-tempered cop tries to intimidate her by arresting her best friend, her dentist tries to pull her tooth without novocaine and her priest tries to talk her out of using public shame as a tool. More nuanced is the reaction of the salt-of-the-earth Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). He is sincere in his search for the killer but simply has no clues to work with.

Matters are complicated by Willoughby’s terminal illness, an arrogant ex husband (John Hawkes) and Mildred’s growing anger.

It’s the performances that make “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” so remarkable. It’s a whodunit of sorts, but the crime is a McGuffin, the thing that gives us a reason for the characters to interact, rather than the main focus. This is a character study of people whose lives are changed by forces beyond their control.

Troubled by her final, argumentative conversation with her daughter Mildred is a flinty presence, strong willed but vulnerable. She’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore and yet there is an undercurrent of pain in everything she does that is heartbreaking. She’s mean and mighty but it’s the haunted look behind her eyes that tells her story. McDormand is remarkable playing an ordinary woman pushed into an extraordinary circumstance.

Her character’s duality is firmly on display in a scene where she is at odds with Willoughby. In the midst of their argument he coughs, spitting up blood. She leaps into action, calling him “baby” and running for help. Her empathy is clear even if he represents everything she is rallying against.

Then there is Rockwell who breathes life into a stereotype, the small town racist cop. As Dixon he’s a nitwit, a violent mama’s boy who undergoes a life change. The thing that makes it so effective isn’t just the character’s redemptive arc but that Rockwell plays it realistically. After his transformation Dixon may be a better man in some respects but he’s still a dim bulb who makes rash, ill-advised decisions.

Supporting work from Sandy Martin as Dixon’s boozy mom and Samara Weaving as a young woman who gets life advice from bookmarks are also memorable.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a comedic tragedy whose idea of justice doesn’t offer easy answers. Unexpected twists keep it compelling but it’s the acting you’ll remember.

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