Martin McDonagh has made a name for himself craftting characters who are uncomfortable vessels in which to explore the human condition. His previous two films (In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) have seen us go to a small Belgian town with two bickering hit men, and the sunny hills of LA with an alcoholic writer and his unhinged serial killer roommate (and that’s just two of the psychopaths).

His awards-favourite follow-up feature throws us into the angry wrath of a mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). She has paid for three billboards in her hometown which question the work of Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his police department in solving her daughter’s rape and murder, a case that remains unsolved seven months after the fact. Through Mildred and the other inhabitants of this midwestern town, McDonagh aims to explore how grief and anger can twist oneself into something ugly, all the while striving to demonstrate just how far a little compassion can go.

Three Billboards may not initially seem like the most awards-friendly feature to come out this year, what with McDonagh’s often barbed approach to dialogue; his approach can prove a little too sharp and profanity driven for some. Here, however, he has written a very passionate screenplay that gives McDormand a vehicle to muster all her acting prowess, shifting from glaring anger to guilt-ridden sorrow with ease, grace and fury when the moment calls for it.

Across the board, McDonagh has populated his film with exceptional character actors. Harrelson has never been better as the perhaps unfairly singled-out police Chief Willoughby, a man who is attempting to deal with the narrow-mindedness of this town in a manner that is much calmer in its approach when compared to Mildred’s. Sam Rockwell takes a role that could easily have been a caricature and manages to construct a performance which is perfectly in tune with the thematic concerns of the film; ‘anger begets more anger’, so why not try something else? It is through this character that McDonagh creates his most uncomfortable vessel yet, as Rockwell’s violent and racist cop is given an arc that seeks to put him through the ringer, quietly watching our reaction as we observe how he comes out the other side.

There has been much written concerning Rockwell’s character in the build up to this film concerning his actions, his redemptive arc as a whole, and the film’s relationship to race. When it comes to the issue of race, McDonagh’s film often takes an approach which feels tonally deaf, misjudged and perhaps a little cowardly. Much is said about Rockwell’s character torturing an unseen black prisoner, and the film’s only other black characters are very thinly sketched. It doesn’t feel like malice on McDonagh’s part; it is more of a trapping he creates for himself by attempting to write a film set in Midwestern America and trying to include everything that comes along with that setting.

As a result, his portrayal of Missouri often feels confused and a little fumbled, be it through the handling of race or reverting to hick-town clichés on numerous occasions. It leads me to question why he felt the need to even set this tale in America, beyond the fact that billboards are more a staple of that country’s landscape than anywhere else. Most of the flaws of the film’s story come from its setting, as it provokes more questions than the film is ready to face or address.

Where Three Billboards’ success lies is in its exploration of how grief can overtake your better judgement, leading you into actions with little regard for the consequences to those you love and those around you. These actions may be stupid, violent (often both), but in spite of all the hate and fury on display, the film ultimately addresses what can happen when you show even your worst enemy a little empathy. McDormand gives a three-dimensional performance in this regard, demonstrating Mildred’s determination, whilst also allowing shades of rational thought to come through; deep down Mildred knows that her actions aren’t going to solve anything, but it is better to be doing something than nothing, no matter how misguided or rage-fuelled.

Three Billboards may have fallen prey to the kind of backlash award-favourite movies tend to receive year in year out, but this has been one of the first cases in which I find myself agreeing with some of the criticisms being laid down upon it. It is tonally drunk behind the wheel at numerous points, a little too flippant for its own good when it comes to addressing race and domestic abuse, and it can occasionally fall back on convenience and cliché. But when taken as a film that explores grief and anger, it is sublime, led by the intimidating force that is Frances McDormand. It is well worth paying a visit to these billboards, even if it’s just to see what all the fuss is about.

(Photos copyright: Blueprint Pictures, Film 4, 20th Century Fox)

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