The title of Martin McDonagh's latest film could easily be "Francis McDormand Gives Another Oscar-worthy Performance" and that would be sufficient. It could also be called "Sam Rockwell plays another really crazy guy convincingly" and that too would be spot on. No need to mention the well nuanced performance by Woody Harrelson in a support role.


In fact, Harrelson, Rockwell and Abbie Cornish all worked with McDonagh in "The Seven Psychopaths". It's combination that seems to work well and adding Francis McDormand to the ensemble was genius. They bounce off each other like a fine machine with a screen chemistry that makes the film an awards season favorite.


First, there is no Ebbing Missouri... so don't fuel up the car and go looking for it; the movie was filmed in and around Asheville, North Carolina. The film opens with three old, dilapidated billboards in the middle of nowhere; they haven't been used in years. Mildred (McDormand) drives pass (as she has done many times before) and comes up with a plan to use the billboards to call out the local police department for not making any progress in the gruesome murder of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton).

Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) owns the billboards and is perplexed that they are finally being used again. His brief encounters with Mildred are priceless and indicative with the free-wheeling dialogue throughout the film. It is a perfect way to open a film that features strong acting.


After establishing what words cannot be used on a billboard, he charges Mildred $5000 per month, takes the money and completes the signage that targets police chief Willoughby (Harrelson).


The billboards are on a little used road so the first person to see the signs is none other than the Ebbing police department's high strung deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon doesn't like what he sees, takes the initiative to confront Mildred; insisting that she take the billboards down. Once again, their exchange is priceless.

Willoughby finally finds out about the billboards - as does the rest of the town - and he too tries to convince Mildred to remove the billboards, but to no avail. He tries to lay some guilt on her by telling her that he has cancer, her response is priceless. This is a situation that is going to divide the town, create a minor midea stir and hopefully get some results.


Mildred, who is divorced from her abusive husband Charlie (John Hawks) has to keep her house in semi-order with her understanding son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). Her ex's new gal pal is a 19-year old zoo worker Penelope (Samara Weaving), who comes of as dumb as a box of rocks. Meanwhile, the town dwarf James (Peter Dinklage) has a thing for Mildred and makes no secret about it.


All the characters, just as in McDonagh's "Seven Psychopaths", are seriously flawed. The most flawed is Dixon who is egged on by his do-nothing mother (played perfectly by Sandy Martin); she feeds him her repulsive venom and he acts on it - because he is basically a mamma's boy. Dixon is reactionary, Welby is greedy, Mildred is angry, James is horny, Charlie is abusive, Willoughby is sickly and the entire movie has a hard edge.


But no one, not even Dixon who is not averse to torture, is as hard as they think they are. Not even Mildred who goes so far as to beat up teenagers at one point. All of the dark personalities and plot points lead to revelations of profound compassion. The most profound being inside Mildred who just needs to get beyond her serrated edge.


This is pure dark comedy. This is pure acting. This is Woody, Sam, Frances, Sam and Abbie doing that thing they do so well that you haven't seen since "The Big Chill".


"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is easily one of the top ten films of the year and is poised to receive nods for lead actress (Frances McDormand), support actor (Sam Rockwell and maybe Woody Harrelson) and original screenplay.   -- GEOFF BURTON