Review: Frances McDormand gives a brutally great performance in topical 'Three Billboards'

Brian Truitt

They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but Mildred Hayes would put the fear of God in the devil himself.

Frances McDormand stars as a grieving mother who's had enough with police incompetence in the dark comedy "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

Wielding righteous anger, fiery emotion, biting humor and an ornery manner right out of a Clint Eastwood Western, Frances McDormand unleashes 2017’s most indelible movie mom in the darkly comic crime drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (**** out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands to additional cities throughout November, goes nationwide Dec. 1). Writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) crafts an expertly structured, brutal, yet surprisingly rousing narrative around a woman who’s ready to torch her entire life if it means catching a killer. 

Several months after her teenage daughter is raped and burned to death by an unknown assailant, Mildred has had it with the small-town cops bumbling the case and rents space on three rickety billboards at the murder site that haven’t been used in years. In black letters with a red background and no subtlety whatsoever, the grieving mother calls out the chief of police, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), as the scapegoat for his officers’ haplessness.

Earlier:Surprise! 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' wins Toronto's top prize

Also:10 holiday movies you must see, from 'Justice League' to the new 'Star Wars'

The thing is, most of Ebbing isn’t on Mildred’s side, even knowing her loss, since she’s not exactly what you’d call a “people person.” Willoughby’s heart is in the right place and he’s a popular guy, plus he’s got cancer: Their relationship, though frayed, is one of the film's most intriguing on an emotional level. More confrontational is Mildred’s dynamic with Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a mama’s boy with a screw loose who’s best known for torturing black prisoners, and her volatile ex-husband (John Hawkes). There are even complicated feelings between Mildred and those closest to her, including her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and loyal pal James (Peter Dinklage).

Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and Mildred (Frances McDormand) clash in 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.'

Mildred’s madder than hell and she’s not taking it anymore, and McDormand infuses her with such pain and presence that, even though she’s not that likable, her wounded mother is a wonderfully primal sight to behold. Everyone from her dentist to the reporters who cover the over-the-top billboards incurs her wrath, and when a priest shows up at her house to urge her to turn the other cheek, Mildred launches a nuclear rebuke comparing the church to the Crips and Bloods.

Among a standout cast across the board, McDormand's and Rockwell’s performances give Three Billboards most of its emotional weight — and two instant Oscar contenders, especially McDormand, who should follow up her Fargo win two decades later with this showpiece. Both of their characters have exquisite arcs that test their beliefs and each come out the other side changed people.

More:Hey, Academy voters! Don't forget these Oscar-worthy performances

Related:The Oscar odds for Harvey Weinstein's award movies now look dim

McDonagh has created a powder keg of a town whose biggest problems are rooted in the issues of our times, including racism, gender politics, sexual assault, police violence and simply loving thy neighbor. But it remains a satisfying narrative throughout, blending black humor and menace, and fostering a pervading sense of hope amid a relentless story of revenge.