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Frances McDormand is a wonder in ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Fox Searchlight Pictures

Frances McDormand, in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” is like kindling waiting for a flame; every muscle in her face seems to be slowly tightening, one by one. She plays Mildred Hayes, a no-nonsense woman (she dresses, every day, in a navy blue jumpsuit; the sort worn by plumbers or mechanics) who’s out for revenge. “I’m Angela Hayes’ mother,” she says, in a voice so low you could jump over it. Her daughter, seven months ago, was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant; Mildred, frozen in clenched-jaw heartbreak, needs to know who to blame.

In the movie’s early scenes, we learn of her unusual strategy to reach this end: She rents three billboards on a rural road leading into her small Missouri town, and on them taunts the town’s chief of police, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for not solving the case. A laconic but good-hearted fellow, Willoughby tries to reason with Mildred; no dice. “Looks like we got a war on our hands,” he drawls. Because this is a Martin McDonagh movie (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”), mayhem ensues — of the violent, foul-mouthed and often darkly comic variety.

But in between the sometimes over-the-top action (I didn’t quite buy Mildred battering high-school kids, though McDormand valiantly sells it), a quiet little actors’ movie unfolds, if you listen for it. Sam Rockwell, as hot-tempered cop Dixon, creates a symphony of blustery jerkiness (and, miraculously, makes you feel a bit for the guy); John Hawkes, in just a couple of brief scenes, tells you everything you need to know about Mildred’s ex-husband. (That anger didn’t begin with Angela’s death.)

Harrelson, in one of his most gentle performances (it’s as if Woody the bartender from “Cheers” got a little smarter, learned how to cuss and went into law enforcement), finds a touching chemistry with McDormand; he understands her, even as he’s being driven mad by her. And McDormand, carrying the movie on blue-denimed shoulders, is a wonder. Every now and then, she lets us see the tiniest crack in Mildred’s anger, through which something flickering shines through. Asked if she’s given up hope, she replies, in a voice that seems too tiny to be coming out of this formidable woman, “I been trying not.”

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

1/2

Rated: R for violence, language throughout, some sexual references. Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell. Director: Martin McDonagh. Running time: 115 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 14, Flicks, Majestic 18.

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