With its firecracker script intent on offending as widely and as equally as possible, Martin McDonagh’s provocative small-town fable is as funny as it is insolent.
The story of Mildred Hayes and her refusal to leave her daughter’s grisly murder unavenged, it’s also a snapshot of bigotry and opportunism. In Frances McDormand’s grand performance, Mildred is both heroic and misguided, but always driven by her convictions, as if she has no other option.
For all her ill-judged behaviours, such as erecting the titular billboards outside the fictional town, kicking high school kids in the crotch or aggressing the dentist, we cheer her for saying the wrong thing so loudly. Indeed, such is the steel of her determination and the granite of her jaw, it always feels like she’s doing exactly the right thing.
But this is McDonagh’s world, not a real place. It’s oddly timeless, as the name Ebbing suggests, almost a ghost town, a throwback. Yet you feel there are thousands of places like Ebbing, around the world.
Somehow, you even come to admire Sam Rockwell, too, as the idiot, racist cop, and you feel for Woody Harrelson as the cancer-stricken police chief. The escalation of violence and discontent is deliberately over the top, and the characters are broad, sometimes cartoonish, spitting out their stylised dialogue, aware of their absurdities and frailties until eventually, gradually, McDonagh finds a way to flesh them out and give them a soul.
It is outrageously funny and whirling, and I think the film’s about the difficulty of all living together yet having to get on. Yet despite the selfishness and pettiness in us all, there are always certain shards of human decency, it says, and McDonagh and McDormand dig deep down in the dirt to find them.