It was the Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Seven when Frances McDormand collected her Academy Award for playing Marge Gunderson, the lovable pregnant cop heroine of Fargo. At that same time, Martin McDonagh was fast establishing himself as the savant terrible of the Irish and English stage, a brash and brilliant playwright who was more Noel Gallagher than Noel Coward — and more like a long-lost Coen Brother than either. Four of McDonagh caustic tragicomedies, all set in rural Ireland, premiered in 1996-7. At the age of 27, he became the first dramatist since Shakespeare to have four shows running simultaneously in London. When McDonagh started dabbling in film a few years later, his debut short Six Shooter won an Oscar right out of the gate.
Only once McDonagh started telling stories set in America — the 2010 play A Behanding in Spokane, the 2012 film Seven Psychopaths — did his rocket-like ascent seem to level off. But with the new Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, his third and best feature, he's finally begun to grapple with the violence of American life in a way that doesn't feel like the work of a tourist. More than that, Three Billboards reflects a greater sympathy for its broken characters than does Fargo or a number of other well-loved Coen Brothers crime capers. That sympathy is what keeps McDonagh's film consistently surprising — and what may keep some viewers from embracing it. The greatest trick a showman can pull in 2017 is to try to make you pity a violent, racist cop.
The Billboards' cast, a murderer's row of great character actors who've played murderers, reunites several whom McDonagh has used before: Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage. McDonagh has a particular yen for casting Sam Rockwell — whom I saw in the Broadway production of A Behanding in Spokane, opposite Christopher Walken, Anthony Mackie, and Zoe Kazan — as loquacious idiots. In Billboards, Rockwell plays a bigoted patrolman who has managed to hold onto his badge only through the mercy (and frankly, negligence) of Harrelson's relatively even-tempered police chief. Of the many imperfect-to-straight-up-evil lawmen Harrelson has embodied in recent years, Chief Willoughby is the most compelling.
But this is McDormand's movie all the way, and a fascinating bookend to Fargo. In that film she was a dogged but reasonable investigator on the trail of two killers; her Billboards character, Mildred, is herself the grieving victim of a horrific crime, the rape and murder of her adolescent daughter. (The assault is discussed in detail but never depicted onscreen.) Frustrated by the lack of progress in the case and enraged by reports of racially motivated police brutality (also discussed but never shown, though no one seriously disputes that these crimes-by-police occurred), Mildred publicly shames the department into redoubling its efforts. Those red billboards on a little-used country road make it plain to all passersby that something awful happened here, and justice has not been served. (The fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri is played in the film by the Smoky Mountain hideaway of Sylva, North Carolina, pop. 2,644.) Everyone feels sorry for Mildred — as a parish priest played by the great Nick Searcy conveys to her — but their empathy finds its operational limit when her demands for justice begin to reflect badly on the town.