The great illness of our age is anger. Everyone in 2017 is pissed off at someone. People on the left hate people on the right, people on the right can’t stand people on the left, and people on both sides hate moderates because they won’t pick a side. I haven’t seen a movie that better captures that national feeling of omnidirectional rage better than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It is a movie about how anger consumes and destroys, and how the only cure for that anger is empathy, something that’s in short supply these days but Three Billboards has in abundance.

It’s a film of contradictions, starting with this one: It’s a warm, open-hearted film about revenge. Its protagonist, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), is still reeling from the brutal rape and murder of her daughter seven months earlier. More than half a year later, the police have no leads, no suspects, and very little hope of ever catching the man who did it. Mildred refuses to accept that. So she rents out three empty billboards near her home, and puts a simple, direct message on them: “Raped while dying and still no arrests. How come Chief Willoughby?”

Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is naturally displeased by this form of civil disobedience, but his loyal and violent deputy Jason (Sam Rockwell) is downright furious. He wants the signs torn down, and since Mildred and the man who owns the billboards (played by Caleb Landry Jones) haven’t broken any laws, he’ll just have to intimidate them instead. But Mildred refuses to be silenced, and so a chess game begins between the two sides: Mildred, fighting for her daughter and her free speech rights, and the Ebbing Police Department, looking to protect its own and keep the peace.

A lesser movie would make the cops one-dimensional villains and Mildred a saintly hero. Three Billboards’ main characters are complex, rich, and real. Mildred isn’t perfect, and Willoughby is an honorable man in many ways. Part of the magic of Three Billboards is that they are both, from their perspectives, entirely correct. As the story develops, Jason is given layers of motivation that help us understand why he behaves the way he does. The people onscreen talk about the importance of listening to people and trying to understand them, and Three Billboards does exactly that with its characters, even the ones that might initially seem to be beyond redemption.

The screenplay, by director Martin McDonagh, is a true work of art that somehow balances pitch-black humor, shocking violence, Hitchcockian suspense, and lacerating social commentary, often within a single scene. The story is the cinematic equivalent of a page turner, with one surprising twist after another, but McDonagh also finds room to explore a large cast of fascinating characters, including John Hawkes as Mildred’s ferocious and sad ex-husband, Clarke Peters as a new cop in Ebbing, and Peter Dinklage as the town drunk with a crush on Mildred. His final line in the film will break your heart.

McDormand has never been better as the indomitable Mildred, but Rockwell might have the tougher part of the two. In 115 minutes, he has to transform from punchline to monster to plucky underdog. Somehow he pulls it off. Both of them deserve awards consideration. So does McDonagh’s screenplay and the lovely cinematography by Ben Davis, which finds ways to complement the performances without ever overpowering them.

Film critics wake up every morning praying their day will include a movie like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It is bold, funny, exciting, suspenseful, unpredictable, terrifying, beautiful, comic, tragic, and fearless. It is one of the very best films I have seen so far this year, and if I could watch again right this second, I would.

Maybe because of McDormand, Three Billboards reminded me a little of Fargo, another dark comedy about murder and justice in small-town America. When Roger Ebert saw Fargo for the first time he wrote “to watch it is to experience steadily mounting delight, as you realize the filmmakers have taken enormous risks, gotten away with them and made a movie that is completely original, and as familiar as an old shoe.” Watching Three Billboards, I felt the exact same way.


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