IIn the latest film from writer/director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”), Frances McDormand plays grieving mother Mildred Hayes. Determined to resuscitate the investigation into the case of who raped and killed her daughter, Mildred hires out three billboards near the scene of the crime off a lonesome highway. “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests?” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” the billboards demand.
Notwithstanding McDormand's considerable range—which unfortunately seems to be reduced to a flippant irascibility as she ages—Mildred's sole emotional reaction to her guilt-ridden bereavement (the source of which is revealed in a heavy-handed flashback) is a strident tenacity, intensified by the baffling mechanics overalls she stubbornly wears throughout the entire movie, even while on a date with a man (Peter Dinklage) who has just done her a substantial favor and over the coat she wears while stocking shelves at the gift shop where she works. McDormand gives an undeniably powerful performance but the role is not dynamic.
Woody Harrelson plays Chief Willoughby, the man the final billboard calls to account by name. Short of violating the civil rights of every man in America, Willoughby has performed a competent investigation, based on the DNA sample found on the burned body of Mildred's daughter. Willoughby expects the case to break in the same way all small-town crime gets solved—when someone overhears the perpetrator bragging about committing the crime at the local bar.
But before that can happen, McDonagh, who in his last movie proved to be a fan of a meta narrative, plays tricks with the story. Not since Alfred Hitchcock's sleight of hand, forcing viewers to switch identification, if not allegiance, from Marion Crane to Norman Bates, in 1960's “Psycho” has a MacGuffin been used so audaciously in place of plot. Viewers hoping for a showdown between McDormand and Harrelson must instead make do with one between Mildred and Willoughby's hotheaded deputy Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell.
Bullied by an overbearing mother (Sandy Martin) and stupid enough to answer "What?" when Mildred addresses him as “Hey, f**khead," Dixon is forced to make leaps in intelligence and integrity, spurred on only by a few kind words in a letter from his former boss. Where Mildred's personality is uniformly outraged throughout, Dixon's is miraculously, unbelievably transformed.
There's more than a clue to the overall feeling of the film in the opening sequence. When Mildred approaches Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the young media marketing tycoon in the town, about his terms for renting the billboards, he's reading a paperback of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Later, after a brutal encounter with Dixon, Red repeats the sentiment: life has "no pleasure but meanness."