Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are simply at their finest in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Benefiting from a captivating script that balances difficult emotion with dark comedy, the three performers each inhabit roles that play to their respective strengths.

It’s a difficult film to watch, at times, but ultimately it’s a rewarding experience, if for no other reason than to watch the leads do what they do best in a story that makes you laugh one minute and breaks your heart the next.

What’s it about?

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a middle-aged spitfire of a mother whose grief over the rape and murder of her daughter Angela and frustration with the lack of resolution to the case leads her to drastic action.

Mildred rents out space on three billboards located on a road near her town of Ebbing, Missouri, each displaying a message challenging the town’s popular sheriff, Bill Willoughby (Harrelson) on his lack of progress on Angela’s case after almost a year of “investigation.”

The move puts Mildred at odds with not just Willoughby, but almost the entire town. Most notably, the sheriff’s loyal but dim and hotheaded deputy, Dixon (Rockwell), takes offense at Mildred’s actions.

Despite Willoughby’s earnest attempts to talk her down, Mildred will not be calmed, she will not be mollified. It then becomes a conflict of wills between one very angry woman and an entire community over an injustice with no simple resolution.

Mildred won’t stop – she has no other path but forward. The only question is how many more lives will be affected by her quest for justice, or at least some sort of just resolution.

No easy answers

The challenging script for “Three Billboards” comes from writer/director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”). In it, McDonagh offers no easy answers, so be prepared for that going into the film.

He also offers no stereotypical characters. No one is easy to pigeon-hole, though they may seem to be when audiences first meet them. Therein lies the opportunities for this talented cast to surprise people with the directions they take the characters and the conflicts between them.

What McDonagh does offer is a fascinating balance between anguish and dark humor, between a thoughtful but brutal examination of the effects of barely contained rage and a genuinely funny look at American small-town life and its eccentric characters.

Rockwell shines brightest

Again, “Three Billboards” serves as a showcase for three exemplary performances from McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell.

That said, it might just be Rockwell’s work here that leaves the biggest impression with audiences, as arguably his character shows the most development over the course of the film.

McDormand, meanwhile, turns in work that should easily garner her Golden Globe and Oscar attention. It’s a ferocious performance within which she projects not just rage and frustration, but also love, grief and empathy.

Harrelson should also be in the awards conversations later this year, though his Willoughby is the least showy role of the three. The strength of his performance is in the earnestness and authenticity he projects through Willoughby – it muddies the waters as far as the “rightness” of what Mildred is doing.

Worth seeing?

For fans of the cast and folks who pay attention to awards season favorites, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is an absolute must-see. It’s a powerful story brought to life by performers doing what they do best, and it’s sure to leave you talking once the credits roll.

But don’t avoid it just because you couldn’t care less about Oscar picks or generally enjoy lighter fare when you go to the movies. There’s plenty to enjoy for everyone here, thanks to the humor in the script and the surprising turns the story as it unfolds.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Željko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Samara Weaving with John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage. Directed by Martin McDonagh.
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.