Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a powerful look at tragedy and activism combining into something both uniquely right and wrong. Taken from any one single characters perspective, the billboards may seem rude, cruel, gross, untrue, unjust, or completely just. In the case of Mildred, played by Frances McDormand, the billboards are justified and needed; she organized and paid for the advertisements in the first place.
On the other hand, we have Chief Willoughby’s perspective, played by Woody Harrelson, whose name is plastered in big bold letters on one of the billboards, despite his good-naturedness and desire to find the victims assailant. The victim happens to be the daughter of Mildred, whose family and marriage has dissolved as a result of the horrific rape and death of her daughter. She lives with her son, Robbie, a young student in his late teens. He doesn’t understand the billboards and perpetually fights with his mother.
A curve ball is thrown into Mildred’s billboard plot when she learns that Willoughby has cancer. She’s stubborn, determined, and pretty narrow-minded, ignoring the sensitive angle of hoisting the terminally ill Chiefs name up in bold letters, slandering his name (which is a very good name to all of the local citizens), and insulting his young family.
The third major perspective comes from Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell demands your attention in every single scene, acting both loosely and intensely at the same time. Dixon has a history of beating up African-American people and just being an awful cop in general. He’s the first officer to discover the billboards, reacting dramatically and only raising the stakes in terms of his raucous behavior in every proceeding scene.
The most interesting part of the narrative is how it’s set up: the dominos are put in place and we just have to sit back and see how they fall, whether that be poorly, not at all, or completely. Morals are blurry and grey like real life. No one character is heroic or admirable. There are three billboards demanding justice for the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter and three people demanding different things from each other.
Eventually, the story of the characters and their true personalities cause the plot to naturally unravel. The film authentically depicts how small town folks might respond to a bold and extraordinary action by a single citizen. They’re not always good, not always bad, but always filled with extreme passion.
A major theme of the film is misdirected hate. Dixon attacks citizens for no particular reason, mentioning past incidents and revealing his behavior on-screen through a violent encounter with the billboard salesman. The wife could hate the sheriff for his actions. The son could hate his mother, Mildred, for the billboards or for any other negative memory he has with her. The chief could hate Mildred like Dixon. Some people can choose to not hate and some just plain refuse to.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a fantastic moral and character study about personal vendettas. Its narrative swims together organically, each character’s motivations clearly defined. Engaging and thought-provoking, Three Billboards is a dark but rewarding experience that’s jam-packed with excellent performances.