Photo: Fox Searchlight

I’ve said it once (or many times) before but it bears repeating: Festival reactions cannot be trusted. Not completely, anyway. For as much as critics like to write with empirical authority, forming an opinion during the multi-day multi-movie binge of a Sundance or a Cannes or a TIFF is basically shooting from the hip. We’re seeing three, four, even six movies a day, often on low sleep and with little time separating one from the next. We’re bound, in this volley of prematurely expressed sentiments, to get it wrong sometimes. It’s why I consider every grade I issue from a festival tentative—and why you should, too.

It may take another viewing, for example, to figure out exactly where I land on Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri (Grade: B), the new flavorfully verbose drama from playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh. McDonagh’s last film, Seven Psychopaths, was a gleefully glib (albeit frequently hilarious) meta cartoon crime caper, like what Charlie Kaufman might make if assigned to write a Tarantino knockoff with his fictional brother Donald. Three Billboards announces its higher stakes and lower laugh count almost immediately, when the title’s meaning becomes clear. On a backstretch of road, largely unused since the highway came in, a message appears, spread across three signs: “Raped While Dying.” “Still No Arrests?” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” This is the handiwork of one Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who’s purchased the advertising space to send a message to the complacent local police force, seven months after her teenage daughter’s mutilated body was discovered. The billboards aren’t just a publicity stunt, designed to grease the wheels of justice. They’re a declaration of war.

Photo: Fox Searchlight

McDormand, grimacing with granite conviction, plays Mildred as a mother whose bottomless grief has hardened into a single-minded, nothing-left-to-lose crusade, and it never grows old seeing her bulldoze through anyone unwise enough to stand in her way. (At one point, she beats up some asshole teenagers; at another, she takes the condescending Catholic priest to town in a scenery-chewing monologue.) But Three Billboards isn’t the cut-and-dry David-versus-Goliath story it initially appears to be. For one, it’s revealed early on that the police department, while populated with its fair share of knuckleheads and racists, didn’t so much botch the investigation as run into dead ends—there just wasn’t much evidence to go on. And Chief Willoughby, played with that familiar Southern twinkle and drawl by Woody Harrelson, turns out to be a decent man trying his best—and he also happens to be dying of cancer, which is just one way that McDonagh complicates the audience’s rooting interest, its points of identification. (“They won’t be as effective after you croak,” Mildred admits of the billboards, matter-of-factly but with some sadness.)

Three Billboards blows empathy in all directions. Even characters who seem to exist as punchlines or villains, like Sam Rockwell’s lumbering idiot brute of an officer or the abusive ex-husband played by John Hawkes, are afforded a measure of humanity. In McDonagh’s simmering crockpot of small-town personalities, resentment commingles with a shared history and understanding—sometimes within a single scene, like the startling gear-shift moment where a tense confrontation between the chief and Mildred disarms itself when he suddenly coughs up blood. These characters have all known each other most of their lives, and that gives them all a common ground to stand on, even as tragedy puts them directly at odds.

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Three Billboards is so invested in its loquacious characters that it seems, at a certain point, to give up on doing much more than just pairing them off and knocking them together. (The digressive tête-à-têtes are a reminder of the writer-director’s theatrical background, though there’s nothing very stagy about his staging.) If I’m reluctant to full-on endorse this off-kilter, unpredictable Missouri gabfest, it’s because McDonagh devises a superb dramatic scenario—two people with a begrudging mutual respect, on opposite sides of an impossible situation, headed straight at each other like cars playing chicken—and then kind of squiggles off in other directions. But maybe that detour-heavy plotting is a strength, not a liability. Like I said: tentative.