Frances McDormand's face is one of the first things you see in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," and it's impossible not to be struck by its pure decency.
Perhaps it's a result of all the other roles we've seen this uniquely fearless actress play, on stage and screen, wrapped into one. But you look at her face and you think: This person has a moral compass. Her side is the right one. We will be safe there.
And that's the way it seems for a while in "Three Billboards ," until suddenly it isn't quite so simple. It's a credit both to writer-director Martin McDonagh and to McDormand's revelatory performance — her best since her Oscar-winning turn in "Fargo" — that we don't see this coming nearly soon enough to steel ourselves.
McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a mother who's suffered unimaginable loss: the rape, murder and incineration of her teen daughter. The film begins seven months later, as Hayes is driving down a little-used road near her home. She stops and stares at three dilapidated billboards.
She heads to the town advertising office, and hands over a wad of cash. Soon, those billboards will be painted bright red, and emblazoned with three messages: "Raped While Dying." ''And Still No Arrests?" ''How Come, Chief Willoughby?"
A grieving mother searching for answers from a lazy police force. What could be wrong with that? Our righteous anger intensifies as a self-satisfied priest comes to her home, sips tea in her kitchen, and explains that she's out of line in going after the chief. Mildred lectures right back at the priest, telling him that he is complicit, as a member of the church, in church sex abuse. And then she tells him to get the #$% out of her kitchen.
She's only getting started. This, it turns out, will be Mildred's go-to stance: Fight back, and fight harder, no matter how profane or even violent she needs to get.
So much for black and white. "Three Billboards" is a veritable study in gray. Willoughby (an excellent Woody Harrelson) comes to visit Mildred, and he's a decent and caring guy. The billboards are plain unfair, he tells her — it's not easy to catch a killer. She suggests they test the DNA of every man in town — heck, in the country. He finally tells her he has terminal cancer. She says she already knew. And she adds: "They won't be as effective when you croak."
Mildred and the chief, at least, have a grudging respect for each other. The same can't be said for her relationship with Officer Dixon, a hapless, moronic, racist, dangerously temperamental and buffoonishly violent Mama's boy, played with complexity and finesse by Sam Rockwell in a constantly surprising performance. (If there's any justice, Rockwell will have an awards season as busy as McDormand's is sure to be.) Mildred's take-no-prisoners quest for justice will bring her into a fiery — and we do mean fiery — confrontation with Dixon. But there's no way you'll be able to foresee the twists and turns their relationship will take.
If one were looking for telltale signs that "Three Billboards" was written by a stage playwright, one might mention that the town of Ebbing seems populated by only a few characters — as in a play. In any case, the small cast is extraordinary. It includes Lucas Hedges as Mildred's pensive son; this thoughtful young actor, who made such an impression in "Manchester By the Sea," sure knows how to pick his movies. Caleb Landry Jones is a jumble of jitters as the unlucky guy who runs the billboard office, and Zeljko Ivanek does terrific work as a police deputy. Peter Dinklage and Abbie Cornish are both moving, he as the unappreciated suitor in Mildred's life, she as the wife of the dying police chief.
Most of "Three Billboards" takes place in the present, but there is one brief flashback to Mildred's life before the murder. It is utterly devastating, and speaks to the idea that the most inconsequential words, that we utter at the most inconsequential times, can of course have consequences so dire, we might never recover from them.
There are no clear heroes here, and no clear villains, and needless to say, one should not expect to take away any easy lessons, either.
Except perhaps this: there's no better time than right now for a high-profile movie led by a meaty, complicated female character — and no better actress than McDormand to take it on. And you can put that on a billboard.
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references." Running time: 115 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.