There is apparently no such place as Ebbing, Missouri, so we assume writer-director Martin McDonagh has a reason for choosing such a loaded word for the title of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Ebbing, that is, not Missouri.
A girl's been murdered. The case is cold. Her inconsolable and violently angry mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand), rents three billboards and emblazons them with phrases that caustically chastise the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) for failing to solve the crime.
The sheriff pleads for cooler heads, but his racist thug deputy (Sam Rockwell) retaliates and violence escalates — hateful words, Molotov cocktails, a guy gets thrown out a window.
Something is ebbing, but what?
Well for one thing, decorum. This is not a movie you want to go to if you can't stand to hear racial slurs, or words like midget, aimed at Peter Dinklage.
But the vile language is part of the point — this is a movie about a woman literally advertising her anger. It's about personal outrage in public spaces, vehement indignation, misdirected anger. It's about good cops, bad cops, racism. It's about Ebbing, Missouri, Charlottesville, Va., or just about anyplace in America.
In fact, we think we know Mildred as a classic American movie type — a deeply wronged person on a relentless quest for justice. Because she is righteous, and because she is Frances McDormand, we are reflexively with her in this.
McDonagh, though, is a natural zig-zagger. In Seven Psychopaths, he played indulgently (and hilariously) with trendy movie nihilism, then turned it on its head — prompting us to think about our appetite for such entertainment.
Ebbing also walks a crooked path. McDonagh takes Margaret's rage and weaponizes it — with language (where McDonagh has few peers) and with worse. She is righteous, then pitiless, then jarringly cruel.
This comes from grief, surely, but also from a deeper source, as McDonagh shows us in flashback. Every major character is found to have hidden layers — Harrelson's folksy sheriff, Rockwell's brutal and biased deputy.
Things happen to radically alter our perception and opinion of the people involved. Even the town itself changes. Mildred's wrecking ball campaign against the cops divides the citizenry, even her own family (played by Lucas Hedges as her son and John Hawkes as her ex-husband).
McDonagh (as is his habit) leaps from savage comedy to shocking violence and then to startling moments of warmth. In one lovely, out-of-nowhere scene, Mildred is alone with a deer in a meadow. She denounces faith and hope, but for the first time, we sense her heart is not in it. Mildred, exhausted by her own anger, seems ready to surrender to something more humane. She mocks religion, but from beyond the grave, a voice speaks of love, compassion, a belief in redemption.
It's a remarkable performance by McDormand, matched by Rockwell, playing a hateful cop with a Hitler haircut who, like Mildred, eventually finds his virulence … ebbing.
By movie's end, the characters square off, and we consider McDonagh's suggestion that these two enemies and antagonists have something in common. We have the barest hope that it's more than spite.