Venice Film Festival: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Venezia 74
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones and Peter Dinklage


by Joanna Orland

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is by far Martin McDonagh’s finest film. It retains McDonagh’s classically cutting dialogue, but has a maturity about it that his previous films lack. This is a uniquely wonderful film, showing McDonagh truly coming into his own as a filmmaker.

I have long been a fan of Martin McDonagh’s work from stage to screen. His directorial debut of In Bruges was a breath of fresh air, darkly comic and highly worthy of the cult status it’s garnered since its initial release. Seven Psychopaths may not be as widely beloved as In Bruges, but is still a wonderful showcase for McDonagh’s talent at writing dialogue. The script is key in any Martin McDonagh piece, and while his subject matter is more serious in Three Billboards, his style of dialogue is not.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a woman on a mission to get justice for her murdered teenaged daughter Angela. Woody Harrelson is Chief Willoughby, the man unable to find Angela’s killer, and the one taking the blame for the injustice in Mildred’s very public display of accusation – the billboards. The use of comedy with such serious subject matter gives this film a raw honesty; through comedy, character dynamics are defined with a natural ease. Exchanges between Mildred and Willoughy depict a clearly complex relationship rather than an antagonistic one: While one minute they can be arguing about billboards and unsolved murders, the next they can share a bit of a good-hearted laugh, or display an onset of empathy for one another.

All of McDonagh’s primary characters in Three Billboards are written with this multilayered complexity. Sam Rockwell as officer Jason Dixon is the most significant example of this; the local cop at first appears to be the village idiot, bad at his job, with a violent temper and a tendency for racial profiling. While Frances McDormand thrives in the main role of the film, it’s Rockwell who not only steals the show with his hilarious, yet subtle, performance, but his character is also the one who undergoes the key transformatitive arc in the film. It’s a genuine surprise how much depth this character reveals during the latter part of the film – a lesser writer would have used Jason Dixon merely as comic relief and not as the true heart and moral center.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a masterclass in screenwriting. It is an uproariously fun movie with a serious core, with a complexity and maturity to it like no other film.


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