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Igniting a Cold Case: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Updated on October 6, 2018


An angry and devastated mother wants answers about her daughter's murder months after the tragedy, and hopes her idea will get results. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tells the tale of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced gift shop owner whose daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), met a violent end. She pays the town's billboard company a month's rent for the billboards, which detail the crime and question the lack of people in custody. The attention directed toward Mildred, though, is mainly negative. Ebbing's police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), merely thinks Mildred's words aren't helpful. He takes the time to patiently explain to Mildred why he has nothing new to report on Angela's murder. Other people take the signs a little more personally, especially Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a troublemaking cop who's the lead investigator on the case. Mildred's immediately family grumbles about the renewed attention, including her harassed son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), who's taken criticism for her actions.

In dealing with Mildred, Willoughby tells her something she's already heard - he has terminal cancer. After spending a relaxing day with his wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and their daughters, Bill goes outside to perform some chores, then ends his life. He leaves several notes, including ones for Mildred and Jason. A new chief is named in Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), and that means changes on the force. That doesn't change the level of animosity she feels toward law enforcement there. A potential break comes when a man comes into Mildred's shop, makes threats, and causes minor damage. Dixon investigates, and even has a confrontation with that man. Both he and Mildred agree the man is a person of interest in Angela's death, and have a problem with the alibi provided for him.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film filled with darkness in both its drama and its humor. Mildred still grieves, yet grows frustrated to the extreme when she perceives that the police have failed to do enough to solve the case. She wants the case to stay hot until Angela's killer is brought to justice. The dark humor shows itself in scenes such as the one where she learns that an anonymous benefactor has paid for more billboard rent, the reaons for which are later explained. It seems as though writer-director Martin McDonagh has used Ferguson as inspiration for Ebbing, though the racial makeup of the residents is decidedly different in Ebbing than in the community that drew much adverse attention for a fatal incident there in 2014. McDonagh's story reminds me of the Coen brothers darkest films, including No Country For Old Men, where the authorities try to stop a killer before he kills again. McDonagh shows Mildred may have a point about her town's police force, but the police beg to differ in varying ways. I prefer the troubling drama of No Country, but Three Billboards raises compelling issues about the matter about the nature of justice as well.

McDormand gives an excellent performance as Mildred, a woman who's not happy beyond the loss she has experienced. She finds little support for her cause from family or community. She can't even be happy when James (Peter Dinklage), a kind and supportive local businessman, invites her to dinner. She fights with any critic of her efforts or attacks made against her. Harrelson shows humor and compassion as Willoughby, despite his medical prognosis. He's frustrated with no new progress, but he also has to give attention to other issues. His letters let him have the last laugh and the last word with those who have been close to him. Rockwell shines as Dixon, whose name rhymes with a famed dividing line between free men and men who may not be. He's an angry bigot who rarely displays the qualities Willoughby likes about him as a cop. He's also the butt of jokes for still living with his mother (Sandy Martin), who has a greater bigoted streak than her son. Martin is just a part of the solid support, along with Hawkes, Hedges, and Dinklage.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that lives to be uncomfortable. A murder remains unsolved, and that just won't do for Mildred Hayes. The murder of Angela Hayes remains important for both the police and the town, but they have other concerns as well. The film takes a look at the case from both Mildred's vantage point and the law's, with both sides making their cases. Mildred works to make the matter as personal for the town as it is for her. As a result, she exposes the deeper divides of the community regarding such matters as free speech and race. Some will say Mildred Hayes crossed the line with the police. One wonders if she's willing to cross even more lines in a quest for justice.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 3.5 stars. Three big cries for answers.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri trailer

© 2017 Pat Mills


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