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‘Three Billboards’ review: Frances McDormand gives Oscar-worthy performance

Frances McDormand plays an angry, grieving mother in

Frances McDormand plays an angry, grieving mother in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures / Merrick Morton

PLOT In a small town, the mother of a murdered girl makes a very public statement about the local police.

CAST Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

RATED R (bloody violence and language)

LENGTH 1:55

BOTTOM LINE McDormand could follow her “Fargo” Oscar with another, thanks to this entertaining but uneven comedy.

If it does nothing else, Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” will keep you on your toes. It’s the story of Mildred, a grieving mother still waiting for local police to find the man who raped and killed her daughter seven months earlier. Ebbing is a small town, with many skeletons in closets and much dirt under rugs, but Mildred, played by Frances McDormand with a hard-set jaw and daggers in her eyes, doesn’t care about keeping the peace.

One day, in a fit of pique, she pays for three billboards that will say to any passing driver: “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests,” and finally, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

It’s the first salvo in what promises to be an escalating battle between Mildred, a tough-skinned townie, and Chief Willoughby, a comfortably enshrined top cop played by Woody Harrelson. When Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an out-of-control sadist and hopeless moron, takes matters into his own hands, “Three Billboards” really catches fire. Dixon’s merciless brutalizing of the local billboard clerk (Caleb Landry Jones) is one of the wildest scenes of violence to hit a screen in some time.

It’s worth noting that we could put the movie in a holding pattern right here, and just watch this cast forever — they’re that good. McDormand’s Mildred is almost as vivid her Marge Gunderson in “Fargo,” though half as sweet and twice as mean. Rockwell has played this kind of part before (hapless, shiftless, dangerously dumb), but here he reaches new levels of insanity. Harrelson, never lacking charm, deftly befuddles both Mildred and us.

Oddly, about midway through, “Three Billboards” takes an abrupt left turn into an entirely different movie, one that extols forgiveness, kindness and redemption. That’s a refreshing message, especially since all three things seem in such short supply these days, and McDonagh is such a clever writer (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) that we’re willing to follow along. “Three Billboards” might be a case of a movie brilliantly upending expectations, or of an artist fishing for ideas. Either way, it’s never less than entertaining.

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