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Frances McDormand trawls her local police department in a major way in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

It did feel like Martin McDonagh had a great movie in him. The Irish playwright has been widely acclaimed in the theater world, but the two films he made so far, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths showed this instinctive talent struggling to put everything together on the big screen. His brother John Michael McDonagh seemed to have him beat as a filmmaker, especially after Calvary. However, that has changed this week with Martin’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri playing at various local movie theaters.

Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a divorced woman living in the fictitious town in the title. Several months ago, her daughter was raped, murdered, and set on fire postmortem. With the case having gone cold and the killer still at large and unidentified, Mildred is frustrated enough to rent out three unused billboards by the side of a highway to personally criticize Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s chief of police. She does this even though, like everyone else in Ebbing, she knows that Willoughby is dying of cancer. The town quickly sides with the beloved police chief over the crusty Mildred, and further violence is in the offing.

Many of McDonagh’s plays are set in small towns in Ireland, so it’s no surprise that his feel for the rhythms and insularity of these communities translates to the American setting here. (It’s probably more surprising that he didn’t try this in his previous films.) The gradual ratcheting of tensions is laced with McDonagh’s trademark macabre sense of humor; we see one cop obliviously rocking out to ABBA’s “Chiquitita” on his earphones while terrible news spreads through the police station behind him. The atmosphere of a town that’s primed to explode is well captured here, so much so that when Mildred approaches someone’s restaurant table with a bottle of wine, you’re half expecting her to bludgeon them with it.

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McDonagh loves his ensemble casts, and he provides for a lot of them here, such as Lucas Hedges (from Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird) as Mildred’s teenage son, who’s bitter now that his mother’s consumed by the memory of his dead sister. John Hawkes does a mean turn as Mildred’s physically abusive ex, though even he’s outflanked by Brendan Sexton III as an anonymous customer who walks into the gift shop where Mildred works and all but confesses to her daughter’s murder. In a few minutes of screen time, Samara Weaving steals a barrel of laughs as the ex-husband’s new and much younger girlfriend. Peter Dinklage’s role initially appears to be that of a glorified extra, but then he gets a showpiece scene late on when Mildred patronizes him during the entire course of a dinner date. (The weak spot is Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife; the Australian actress seems to have misplaced her dialect coach.)

Arguably most interesting of all is Sam Rockwell as Dixon, the officer whom Mildred has in mind when she tells a TV reporter, “The local police are more interested in torturing black folks than solving actual crime.” Dixon is indeed racist to his core, with a history of police brutality. We see the latter in action when he takes the adman who rented out the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones) and tosses him out his second-story office window in full view of the townsfolk. Mildred wastes no opportunity to taunt Dixon about the fact that he still lives with his mother, and it’s deeply satisfying when a new police chief (Clarke Peters) who happens to be African-American comes in and humiliates Dixon in front of his fellow cops before firing him. For all this, Dixon winds up earning a half-measure of redemption in a way that’s unexpected and yet still makes sense.

McDormand turns her role into a masterclass on cold, slow-burning anger that erupts on two high-school kids who throw a soda at her car. However, the part of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that haunts me the most are the three suicide notes that Chief Willoughby leaves, one for his wife, one for Mildred, and one for Dixon. These notes reach such a pitch of eloquence and wisdom that you think the lawman might have missed his calling and should have been a writer. He has a regrettable tolerance for racists on his force that winds up causing havoc, and yet the man who comes through in the letters shines with moral force through all the murk thrown up by this disquieting and powerful work.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Rated R.

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