Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

British playwright, screenwriter, and director Martin McDonagh is a master of dark comedy. His first two films, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, are violent crime stories sprinkled with absurd humor, witty banter, slightly over-the-top plot lines, and exaggerated characters. His plays, like The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, also fall under the banner of black comedy but are more realistically grim than his films. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, the latest addition to McDonagh’s cinematic repertoire, is a departure from his previous movies, with McDonagh finally bringing the gritty realism of his plays to the silver screen. A brilliant script full of surprises, a fantastic cast, and moody cinematography create a thought-provoking commentary on violence in America.

The movie follows Mildred Hayes (portrayed by Frances McDormand) several months after her daughter, Angela, was raped and murdered. No one has been apprehended, and Hayes is becoming furious with what she perceives as a lack of commitment to the case from the Ebbing Police Department. Her frustration leads her to paint three billboards along a road leading into town that read “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests,” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” These bold messages create tensions between her and William Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson), who is held in high regard by his police staff and the rest of the town. One of Willoughby’s officers, Jason Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell), who is childish, racist, and prone to violent outbursts, takes particular offense to the dig at his leader. Dixon’s immaturity only worsens the conflict between Mildred and the police.

Really, what makes Three Billboards such an absorbing film to watch is how it defies the assumptions you would make from a synopsis like the one I just provided. While many other screenwriters would make Angela’s death a focal point, teasing it and perhaps eventually revealing the tragic event in a flashback, McDonagh shies away from this. This is not a story about her death, but rather a story about the strain her death puts on Mildred’s relationships with others, like her son and ex-husband, and also herself. Furthermore, you are forced to see both sides of all of the characters: Mildred seems to be the film’s “good guy,” yet while her intentions are clearly good, as she grows more and more aggravated with the police (and particularly Dixon), her choices become more and more questionable, with her decision-making often led by her short temper. On the other hand, Chief Willoughby becomes one of the more likable, sympathetic characters. Even more surprisingly, Dixon’s character arc becomes a major storyline — while it does not supersede the search for Angela’s killer, the two plots are intertwined and Dixon’s journey becomes a key component in conveying the film’s main message.

That message is perhaps best said by Mildred’s ex-husband’s scatterbrained, dopey 19-year old girlfriend, Penelope. In one scene, Penelope profoundly states, “anger begets more anger,” before admitting she read it in a book (or maybe on a bookmark, she can’t remember). Regardless of where Penelope found it, the phrase nicely sums up what McDonagh wants to say with this film — we must avoid taking conflicts too far and resorting to violence, and must instead find ways to forgive and understand one another. Throughout the film, characters lose sight of rationality and instead use fighting to try to solve their problems, when it actually just exacerbates them — for example, Mildred is so wrapped up in getting vengeance that she ends up hurting others, bringing her even more trouble.

Despite the clear-cut message throughout the film, Three Billboards never feels preachy, in part due to the open-ended final scene (which I will not spoil here). While this is initially frustrating — you yearn to know more and the scene complicates some of the characters’ arcs — it is actually an incredibly realistic and refreshing way to close out a film. McDonagh is showing that there are no clear-cut resolutions in real life and real people are full of inconsistencies and that sometimes the right decisions are not always the easy, or obvious, choice.

This complex, weighty plot is bolstered by extraordinary performances from the entire cast. McDormand masterfully flips between the tough renegade facing the police and a mother overcome with pain and grief. Much of her emotion comes through in her jaw and lips: the way she squares her jaw and how her face seems to turn to stone when she encounters an adversary or the way her lip trembles and her mouth drops when she’s reminded of her daughter. McDormand’s acting seems so natural, she makes Mildred’s two sides — intense anger and intense sadness — feel so realistic that you forget you are watching someone act. Harrelson once again shows why he is one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood — he jumps between comedic scenes and dramatic moments with ease, delivering some of the most sorrowful, yet funny lines of the movie.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is McDonagh’s finest effort so far, continuing his signature black comedy style but also taking a more serious approach to character and plot development. The result is a must-see: a superb cast fills rich, multifaceted roles and the movie delivers a powerful message without being heavy-handed.