The Martin McDonagh written and directed “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” begins with a mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), deciding to rent some billboards in order to highlight the local police department’s inability to catch her daughter’s rapist and murderer. The billboards’ message is an intentionally provocative one and the goal is not just to try to spur action, but also, undeniably, to tweak the police.

Hayes’ action works. The police, all the way up to and including Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is specifically called out in the billboards, are tweaked. The film, which is a dark comedy, is not about this particular action by Hayes, but rather the fallout from it.

While it is true that Hayes never could have correctly guessed the results of her actions, she didn’t really care to try. The whole point, as noted, was for her to force action and she most definitely does. However, discussing any of what actually takes place would, most definitely, ruin it for those who watch.

It would be reasonable to assume that, due to its subject matter, “Three Billboards” would be a dark film, and it most definitely is, but it is also amazingly funny (it hits the tone that “Suburbicon” is aiming at and misses). McDormand and Harrelson are both utterly perfect in their roles, finding a way to get across moments that are impossibly sad and those that are amazingly funny.

McDonagh’s script, in fact, is littered with funny characters who are brilliantly performed by the cast, which also includes Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son; Caleb Landry Jones as Red Welby, the man who rents the billboards to Mildred; and Željko Ivanek as the desk sergeant at the police station. It doesn’t stop there either, with Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, and Clarke Peters also among the cast.

However, one of the absolute best performances is the one delivered by Sam Rockwell. The actor plays Officer Dixon, a not-too-bright, racist, policeman who still lives with his mother. It would be easy to turn this character into a quickly dismissed joke or a wholly dark, sobering, example of some of the worst of our society, but he is neither of those things. Well, he is in fact a joke, and he is a sobering reality, but he is also someone who grows and changes over the course of the film. I don’t think anyone would suggest he’s a good guy by the end of the piece, but he’s not someone easily forgotten either. He may be the character that the audience spends most of the time contemplating after leaving the theater.

“Three Billboards” is not about handing out easy answers, not for anyone. Hayes is so incredibly focused on her pursuit of the police department that she does not care about what she’s doing to those around her. Willoughby, on the other hand, might care all too much about the officers under his command, his family, and the rest of the town.

On many levels then, “Three Billboards” exhibits a deft balance – offering up both light and dark characters; offering moments that are deadly serious and others that are insanely funny. McDonagh manages to keep everything moving, to keep everything changing, and to keep it all in balance throughout. It is a study of not one, but many characters, just as it is a study of the good and bad of small town life. It is a story of many types of loss, and the different ways people go about coping with loss.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is deft, wonderful, beautiful filmmaking, offering many memorable characters and performances. It is a film to be searched out and seen when it opens next week.

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photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures