Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in a publicity photo for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
Armed with a trusty Movie Pass card, the quest begins to see all the potential Oscar nominees prior to the February ceremony. 

Seven months after the violent death of her daughter, Mildred Hayes, stunningly played by Frances McDormand, rents “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — on a road that no one uses since the freeway was built — that read, in order, “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests?” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” in hopes of pushing the police to work harder to solve the case.

The titular constructions certainly provoke a reaction that pits Mildred against the police, including the beloved Chief William Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, and the violent racist officer Dixon, superbly played by Sam Rockwell, as well as several of the small town’s residents, into war.

McDormand’s Mildred drives the film. Let’s be honest, McDormand is an acting goddess. From her first appearance in the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple,” through her Oscar-winning turn as Marge Gunderson in “Fargo,” with a Tony award for “Good People” and an Emmy for “Olive Kitteridge” thrown in for good measure, she is a consistent force in everything she does. McDormand brings an authenticity and honesty to every role, and she has never been better than the grieving mother in “Three Billboards.”

Mildred is, to say the least, a little rough around the edges, and her coping mechanism is to fight, both physically and verbally — with Willoughby, with Dixon, with the local priest, and even with a dentist. She is hard-jawed and seething with suppressed rage looking for an outlet. The brilliance of McDormand’s performance is that such an abrasive, flawed character never loses our sympathy — and when she is at her worst is when we feel for her most. McDormand is a front runner for another Oscar and on this showing it will take an hell of a performance to stop her adding another statue to her cupboard.

While McDormand is the pillar around which the movie revolves, she doesn’t do all the heavy lifting. Sam Rockwell has built a career playing goofballs and eccentrics, and can always be counted on to be interesting. Here, he plays another goofball, but this time he is also bigoted, racist, homophobic, drunk and violent. In less sure hands, Officer Jason Dixon would be a cartoon character, an easy object of derision. But Rockwell gives us a character that, while certainly unlikeable, is deeper than one might expect. Don’t be surprised to see supporting actor nods come his way this award season.

There is really no weak link in the ensemble. Harrelson’s Bill Willoughby is nuanced and ultimately a good man — we see why the small-town chief has earned the respect of the town. Peter Dinklage and John Hawkes are excellent in a supporting roles, and the entire cast is excellent (maybe it is time to stop picturing couples where the pretty wife is 20 years younger than her husband, but that is a problem on the film industry as a whole and is a minor criticism of this movie).

The film is written and directed by British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, a heavyweight in the world of theater whose credits include the Leenane Trilogy, “The Pillowman” and “A Behanding in Spokane.” He previously wrote and directed “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths” and “Three Billboards” has everything a McDonagh fan expects — pathos cloaked in dark humor, and characters that are, at once, both exactly and not at all what they seem.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a superb combination of great storytelling and stellar ensemble acting, but it is McDormand’s performance that is a true tour de force.

Rated R for violence and strong language (as is the embedded trailer below)

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