There were so many fine films released last year that it's difficult to call any clear cut favorite for the Oscars. Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water" seems to have the momentum, but one should not underestimate "Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri", a British film that perfectly captures the look and feel of a small town American community. Like Guillermo's movie, "Billboards" presents a superlative role for a mature actress, this time in the form of Frances McDormand, who gives the performance of her career as Mildred, a no-nonsense independent woman who has recently divorced her philandering husband, who is carrying on with an air-headed beauty young enough to be his daughter. Mildred is trying to juggle her threadbare financial existence by working in a charity shop and scrounging to put food on the table for her teenage son. However, she is obsessed with a family tragedy that permeates every moment of her day. We learn that she had another teenage child, a daughter, who was killed seven months ago when she was accosted on a remote road, raped and horribly murdered. When we first meet Mildred, she is all-to-apparently carrying the weight of that incident on her broad shoulders and she is obsessed with finding her daughter's killer. She's fed up with what she feels is lack of progress on the part of local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who she suspects has let the case go cold. Willoughby maintains he and his small department are doing all they can but there are few clues to follow up on. Mildred decides to take drastic, if unorthodox, action by renting out three billboards that sit abandoned on a road rarely traveled by locals since a highway rendered it superfluous. She puts up insulting messages to the chief in the hope it might shame him into being more assertive in solving the case. The tactic unleashes a backlash of bad will in her direction. Willoughby is a popular figure in the town and any sympathy Mildred's tragic situation has elicited from her neighbors vanishes overnight. She becomes the object of everyone's anger and she can find solace only among a couple of loyal friends. Her main antagonist is Dixon (Sam Rockwell), one of Willoughby's deputies. He's an uncouth hard ass who is determined to defend the department's honor by taking on Mildred personally through harassment and insults. The end result is to bring the simmering tensions to a boil in a spectacular, if misguided, act of violence on the part of Mildred.
I don't want to divulge too much more about the plot because the main strength of writer/director Martin McDonagh's screenplay is its sheer unpredictability. Every time you think you know where the plot is heading, McDonagh takes you in a different direction. Friends become enemies, enemies become allies. McDormand is a cinematic force of nature in the leading role. She's not entirely sympathetic, as she uses her barbed-wire wit to attack friend and foe alike. We later learn there is an additional emotional burden on her that can never be resolved: she feels a sense of personal responsibility for her daughter's fate. Refreshingly, the three main characters are not presented as stereotypes. If Mildred is the protagonist we are rooting for, she is also a flawed human being who seems at times to be devoid of any feeling of rapprochement even when Willoughby offers her every imaginable olive branch. He's a decent man with his own family and he's also carrying his own secret burden. Dixon, however, is initially presented as a bumbling Deputy Barney Fife-like character but with a sadistic streak. The interactions between these characters make for some fascinating scenarios that are brought to life by three actors who give the performances of their careers. (McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell are all up for Oscars.) The film is also peppered with some truly remarkable performances by a supporting cast that seems cherry-picked to perfection. Among them is Peter Dinklage, who provides some much-needed humanity and gentleness.
I don't know how Three Billboards will fare at the Oscars, but it's my choice for Best Picture. Martin McDonagh has provided us with a highly original and compelling work (and it has a great soundtrack, too).