Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Nov 22, 2017

May be the best movie of the year.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Grade: A

Director: Martin McDonagh (In Bruges)

Screenplay: McDonagh

Cast: Frances McDormand (Fargo), Woody Harrelson (Wilson)

Rating: R

Runtime: 1 hr 55 min

by John DeSando

If you long for the brilliant depiction of the melancholy unity between humor and pathos, you’ll love writer/director Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. In seeming  homage to the Coen Brothers, especially their iconic Fargo and Raising Arizona, this film takes the rape/murder of Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) daughter and weaves the dreary investigation with some scarily funny takes on small-town rednecks/crackers.

Mildred spurs the investigation of her daughter’s murder by placing three billboards that accuse the local police, especially Chief Willoughby(Woody Harrelson), of slacking. However, this is just the MacGuffin that pales in the shadow of the town’s bigotry and lassitude. The Chief, however, is not necessarily culpable as he claims to have tried but without physical proof such as DNA.

Mildred, in Marge Gunderson mode, pursues the killer at the expense of local sympathy: “It seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes.” Note the slams at languorous cops and racism, motifs played throughout.

Catching the right dark tones between grief and hilarious ineptitude, this film knows justice is not easy and sometimes meted out by imbeciles. Yet, getting on with a goal and learning cooperation and compromise, especially in a small town, may lead to a comfort that goes beyond catching a murderer.

The acting is incomparable. When Harrelson talks about the culture of racism, there’s truth in his voice, sadness in his tone: “If you got rid of all the cops with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have only have three cops left. And all of them would hate fags.”

As Mildred and Dixon forge an alliance to find her daughter’s murderer, the film’s message seems to be that unless we cooperate with each other, evil will reign. Let’s hope the contemporary fractious world hears that note hidden in the darkest comedy this year.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at