Venice Film Review: ‘Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri’

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“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the third feature written and directed by the playwright-turned-filmmaker …

Frances McDormand is at her quirky humane best as a grieving small-town mom who goes to extremes in Martin McDonagh’s meditation on loss, rage, and the war dance between the sexes.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the third feature written and directed by the playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”), sets itself up with no time to spare. A trio of old, weathered, falling-apart billboards stand in the morning fog, like broken dominoes, along a sparsely traveled road on the outskirts of Ebbing. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), her face bent into a scowl of despair and resolve, marches into the advertising office that controls the billboards and draws up a contract to rent them for a year, offering a one-month down payment of $5,000. She then has the billboards painted red and adorned with three linked messages in black capital letters: “Still No Arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” And finally, “Raped While Dying.”

Mildred, we learn, lost her teenage daughter, Angela, seventh months before, when the girl was raped, killed, and set ablaze (not necessarily in that order). The billboard messages are an attack on the complacency of the local police force, and especially its chief, Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for having failed to find the killer, or to even put much effort into it. When Willoughby learns of the billboards, he blows a gasket, and it seems clear where the movie is headed: to a battle between the police and Mildred, the aggrieved citizen who has taken the law — or, at least, the power of public shame and coercion — into her own hands. When she accuses Willoughby of being “too busy torturing black folks” to solve her daughter’s murder, there’s an unmistakable echo of the case of the recently pardoned Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who in his anti-immigrant crackdown fever ran an office that failed to investigate hundreds of sex crimes against children.

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