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Frances McDormand masterfully exploits ‘Billboards’ dark comedy

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Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand are terrific in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
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“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a comedy-infused drama about grief, anger, compassion — and unusual and outrageously warped ways to seek justice.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, and superbly acted by Frances McDormand and a handful of costars, the film is a splendidly mixed tonal cocktail and holiday-season highlight.

McDonagh, who made the winning hit-man comedy “In Bruges” and the cracked crime misadventure “Seven Psychopaths,” again nimbly mixes comedy with grimmer fare and combines nobly aspiring material with baser antics. His complicated characters continue to do extreme things. The protagonist, however, is female, and McDonagh’s most memorable yet.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a working-class mother whose daughter was raped and murdered months ago and who is too consumed with grief and pain to be much of a mother to her teen son (Lucas Hedges).

Wanting to keep her daughter’s unsolved murder in the public consciousness, Mildred purchases advertising space on three run-down billboards, which she fills with messages condemning the town’s well-liked police chief, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for his department’s failure to find the killer.

The billboards pit Mildred against Willoughby’s immediate underling, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a brutal, racist hothead and mama’s boy.

Explosive things happen, resulting from anger that drives the hateful Dixon, and the more sympathetic, but nonetheless destructive, rage impelling Mildred.

Slowly, Mildred becomes increasingly vengeful while Dixon, relatively speaking, turns redemptive.

With elements such as a conflagration that he gives a bit of a mythic quality, McDonagh seems to aim for grandness or profundity in his portrayal of Mildred’s crusade and the small-town American landscape. He doesn’t achieve that.

Still, the movie is far from a prestige-season revenge thriller.

McDonagh combines a blazingly comic story with a moving drama about an anguished woman who makes herself heard. The film satisfies because McDonagh remains plugged into the humanity written into the characters, and because his actors are sensational.

McDormand’s Mildred is a raging force of purpose with a caring heart. She’s fascinating as she shows compassion for Willoughby, the target of her billboards, while realizing that he too is in pain. She has sealed off her own sadness to such an extent that her face looks frozen.

With her dramatic depth and genius for this sort of comedy, McDormand makes the plum role unforgettable.

All of the major characters reveal unexpected facets.

Rockwell is outstanding as the initially villainous but eventually more thoughtful Dixon, making his seemingly out-of-character transformation believable. Harrelson’s Willoughby is the film’s most soulful presence.

John Hawkes as Mildred’s abusive ex-husband, Charlie; Samara Weaving as Charlie’s 19-year-old girlfriend; Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife; Caleb Landry Jones as the ad-agency operator Dixon torments; and Peter Dinklage as Mildred’s admirer, round out the primary cast.

REVIEW
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Three and a half stars
Starring Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 55 minutes

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