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THREE BILLBOARDS: Violent but Hopeful

It’s a rare film that mixes gripping suspense and laugh-out-loud comedy with violent death and a relevant, hopeful message.

In keeping with its unusual title, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri” is a rare film indeed.

In a role that will surely net her another Best Actress Oscar nomination, Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother whose teenage daughter was burned alive and raped (yes, in that disgusting order).

Since police have made zero progress on the case, Mildred rents a trio of roadside billboards reminding everyone what happened, naming the local sheriff and asking why there’s been no justice.

That sounds like a simple premise, but writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) laces his tale with enough left turns, interrelationships and scary scenarios to keep us riveted throughout.

While the town sympathizes with Mildred, it feels more loyalty for the dedicated Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) -- and thus, the billboards constitute the opening salvo in a sort of civil war, with a series of reprisals that keep getting more and more violent. Much of this involves the dim-witted, racist Deputy Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell.

Given this storyline, “Three Billboards” could easily have demonized police, but that would be too simplistic for McDonagh. He’s much more interested in compassion and empathy.

Indeed, there comes a point at which we wonder whether Mildred should just take down the ads -- and therein lies the key to this film: Yes, we want justice for her daughter, but as Mildred and the townfolk jockey back and forth with uglier and crueler persecution, we can see that somewhere, someone is going to have to let go of the hate and anger.

This idea is bolstered when Willoughby tells Dixon what would really make him a good cop: not just skill and composure, but love. After this, the movie proceeds to lay out the value of forbearance and forgiveness in several scenes that are especially moving for all the grief that’s gone before. The film’s ending is somehow fitting, unexpected, open-ended and satisfying all at the same time.

Both Harrelson and Rockwell deserve supporting-actor noms -- and for the underrated Rockwell, it’s about time! Other acting highlights include Peter Dinklage as a local man carrying a torch for Mildred; Lucas Hedges as her son; and Clarke Peters as an out-of-town sheriff who arrives in the nick of time.

There’s a lot of misery in the first 90 minutes of this film, and sometimes when that happens -- as in, for instance, “Manchester by the Sea” -- I begin to wonder whether the writer can provide sufficient redemption to leave us feeling hopeful, rather than crushed and despairing; and even if he offers a glimpse of light, he must do it without artificiality or manipulation: It has to be the real deal, or it won’t work.

“Three Billboards” is the real deal. Marked by a standout ensemble cast, it’s gripping, thoughtful cinema, and one of 2017’s best films.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri,”

written and directed by Martin McDonagh

Run time: 115 min.

* * * 1/2 (out of four)

Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references

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