Fans of Martin McDonagh's blackly comic 2008 thriller In Bruges will be pleased to hear that his latest film is a much more worthy follow-up than his previous effort, the unholy mess that was 2012's Seven Psychopaths. It also hands Frances McDormand her best role since Fargo's Marge Gunderson.
Set, as the title indicates, in the small town of Ebbing, Missouri, the film stars McDormand as vengeful mother Mildred Hayes, who commissions three billboards in order to shame local sheriff Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) over his apparent inaction regarding the rape and murder of her daughter seven months previous. Willoughby is sympathetic to Mildred's anger, but he also has his own problems, as he's just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Meanwhile, his hot-headed idiot deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) takes it upon himself to sort the billboard problem, with disastrous results.
In a role that was written expressly for her, McDormand is a force to be reckoned with, burning with fury and willing to go to extreme lengths to get what she wants. McDormand (and McDonagh), in turn, play some interesting games with that idea, challenging the audience to support Mildred even when her actions threaten to cross certain boundaries.
Harrelson is equally good as Willoughby, and the relationship he has with Mildred is both touching and unexpected, particularly in the scene where he reveals his illness, a sharply written and superbly executed moment that's simultaneously shocking, moving and laugh-out-loud funny. Similarly, Rockwell is terrific as dim-witted Dixon, navigating a complex journey that deliberately kicks against the usual stereotypes.
McDonagh's script consistently confounds audience expectations, in a way that could have easily back-fired, since the film doesn't offer any easy answers or traditional narrative resolutions. What makes it work is the attention paid to the characters and the fact that they're full of surprises.
As director, McDonagh maintains tight control of the tone (a skill that was amply evident on In Bruges, yet completely eluded him for Seven Psychopaths), balancing jet-black humour and moments of startling violence with touching notes of compassion and understanding that hit surprisingly hard.
It's fair to say that this won't necessarily be the film you're expecting, but the note-perfect performances, delicious dialogue and assured direction ensure that a trip to Ebbing, Missouri is well worth your while.