Words leave burn marks in Martin McDonagh’s savagely potty-mouthed and unexpectedly moving Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The pitch-black comedy is bursting with the profane eloquence that has marked McDonagh’s films since his debut In Bruges (2008). Every character is given many opportunities to display their inner sailor, but none more than Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who has a giant open wound where her heart should be and the mouth as clean as a used Rs 100 note.

Sample a conversation between Mildred and a priest who drops in to offer some advice: “When a person is culpable of altar-boy fucking or any kind of boyfucking… then you forfeit the right to come into my house and say anything about me or my life, or my daughter or my billboards.”

(The censor board has bleeped out many of the swear words in the Indian version. Our tip: follow the lip movements and the subtitles.)

Mildred’s daughter Angela is gone, raped and burnt to death and buried under the soil on top of which the grieving mother has put up three billboards that display taunts for the local law enforcement. The billboards target police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for failing to catch the culprit, and in a movie about the power of language, they speak the loudest for Mildred’s mission.

The billboards turn out to be Mildred’s most polite statements on the subject. Her red-hot rage pushes her beyond the limits of propriety and into a zone of moral righteousness that ignores Willoughby’s integrity and standing in the community and the threat of retaliation from racist police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Mildred Hayes is a response to observations made by a character in McDonagh’s previous movie Seven Psychopaths (2012). The man offers his comments on a screenplay: “Your women characters are awful! None of them have anything to say to themselves and most of them get either shot or stabbed to death within five minutes and the ones that don’t probably will later on.”

Mildred doesn’t merely verbalise her emotions, but acts on them too. The ability of language to question, poke, catalyse or simply rile is present in every exchange, whether between Mildred and her son (Lucas Hedges), who calls her by an epithet not usually reserved for family members, and Dixon and his racist mother (Sandy Martin). McDonagh even conjures up a beautiful romantic moment out of a four-letter exchange between Willoughby and his wife (Abbie Cornish) that ranges from unmentionables to Oscar Wilde.

Even Dixon has a theory on political correctness, which the movie decisively rejects. When asked, “How’s it all going in the nigger-torturing business these days, Dixon?”, he replies, “It’s the person of colour torturing business these days.”

Dixon, who has a history of unprovoked and race-fuelled violence, tips over the edge ever so often. But in a movie packed with Christian themes of forgiveness and redemption, even he gets his stab at Confession. Does Dixon deserve what comes to him? Or, for that matter, does Willoughby? McDonagh’s films confront moral dilemmas without offering neat and satisfying conclusions. His other life as a playwright shows up in the rat-a-tat patter and superbly sketched characters. But the loosely structured plot goes into directions that are neither immediately visible nor entirely satisfying. McDonagh’s acerbic writing is always memorable, even if his direction isn’t without its share of problems.

Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Image credit: Fox Searchlight.
Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Image credit: Fox Searchlight.

Mildred’s inability to control the consequences of her actions leads to a denouement that would have been less persuasive if it weren’t for the actor involved. Frances McDormand carries the movie across the bumps with an immensely powerful performance that conveys the sadness that lies beneath the foul tongue and the guilt that a mother feels when she is unable to get justice for her daughter.

The rest of the superbly directed cast have equal opportunity to cuss and impress. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, who worked with McDonagh in Seven Psychopaths (2012), are in top form. Rockwell has the difficult task of portraying an immature and sexually repressed boy pretending to be a grown-up, but his Dixon is as unforgettable as Mildred. Peter Dinkgale has a delightful small role as a vertically challenged admirer of Mildred’s occasionally misguided bravado.