Frances McDormand incarnates Mildred Hayes, rightfully vengeful but so much more than that, as she takes it upon herself to get to the bottom of her teenage daughter Angela’s unresolved rape and murder. By renting three rusty billboards on a generally empty roadside, which bluntly and plainly address Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) as to why seven months on, there are still no arrests and seemingly a decreasing interest in the case altogether.
Mildred is a powerful, quick-witted, no-bullshit woman who is past the point of weighing up the consequences of her actions. The grief has turned into anger, and to even begin to accept the death of her Angela, she needs to hang on to the search for answers, for results.
Chief Willoughby and his protégé Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, who brings one of the most layered performances to the film) pay a visit to the advertising company responsible for renting out these incendiary billboards in the first place. Enter the not-so-innocent Red (Caleb Landry Jones), who is smart enough to use the rulebook of capitalism against the police’s urges and threats to take the billboards down.
Although our first instinct is to muster up as much anger towards Willoughby as we can, there are a few things that cut that feeling at the root. For one, it is quite easy to see that Mildred is merely focussing her unsurmountable grief at the only people she can for now, who by not even making arrests, are not doing what they are being paid to do. More than that, Mildred and Willoughby actually share a matter-of-fact kind of bravery, in the sense that they can see a situation for what it is and take whatever course of action will suit them best, no matter the consequences.
Lucas Hedges plays Mildred’s son Robbie, and brings a similar presence to the one he brought in Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Manchester by the Sea’. He deals with the broken pieces of his family and the backlash of his mother’s billboards with a of mixture of sarcasm, indifference, and anger (not necessarily in that order).
Martin McDonagh’s writing allows the characters to develop and act naturally, rolling with their impulses, never painting them as people to root for or hate, but framing each person’s reactions in their context. Dixon’s character development is by far the most emotionally challenging, starting of with all the elements of your stereotypical deep-south cop who thanks to his gun and badge deals out the law in his own way, to whomever displeases him, accentuated by a seemingly constant state of being ever so slightly drunk.
A stroke of genius occurs here, however, as the turn of events brings out the parts of Dixon only Willoughby saw in him, and it is truly through Dixon that McDonagh showcases his understanding of the necessary layers that make up a human being, and to what extent our personal grievances and hurt can interfere with our lives and actions.
The film is brilliant in its resistance to a classical Hollywood wrap up of the narrative, and pervades the reality and cruel randomness of life. People are always more than what they let you see, grief is never rational, and as Dixon put it himself, “It’s not so much about hope, but about getting better at English. Because you need English to be a cop. Or to be anything, really”.