Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry-Jones, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek

Directed by: Martin McDonagh

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

'Anger begets anger.'

This is basically the moral of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and yet the very way in which the line is delivered – in an emotionally charged, slightly cringey and wryly funny 'worst first date ever' scenario – is typical of this dark, tragic, brilliant, blackly comic movie, which continually moves us with unexpected moments of hope and goodness before whipping the cosy rug out from under our feet with violence and hatred. If that makes any sense. If I told you Tyrion Lannister was in it would that make things any clearer?

Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

The wonderful Frances McDormand (who, incidentally, kicks Meryl Streep's butt AND has never been in Mamma Mia) plays Mildred Hayes. Ex-wife to an abusive cop husband and mother of a raped and murdered daughter, she has a serious axe to grind with the police. Stroppy, surly and rude rude rude, she is both utterly awful and the best person on screen since Sarah Conner.

In order to shake the local cops from their – to her mind – complacent inactivity over her daughter's case, she pays to send them a message – in letters three feet high, on the eponymous three billboards.

But the cops themselves are not without their own issues. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a decent bloke in an old school, alpha male way, but is dying of pancreatic cancer. Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is racist, sexist, gingerist (it's a thing) lazy, alcoholic and, well, kinda stupid. It's not that they don't care about the Hayes case, they simply can't catch a break.

Sam Rockwell and France McDormand in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

But this isn't good enough for Mildred – she wants action. And action is what ensues, a perfect storm of bad choices and misguided dirty deeds, born from desperation, frustration and misplaced loyalty, that threaten to turn the small town of Ebbing upside down.

No-one comes out of this film particularly well. No-one is noble or shiny or beautiful. Just like real people really – although real people aren't generally as sharply, smartly eloquent as this bunch – or even as entertainingly ineloquent (a throwaway line sees Dixon describe a witness, Wayne's World style, as 'lady with the funny eye'...)

Although McDormand carries the film effortlessly, the performances all round are great (with the exception of Abbie Cornish as Willoughby's wife, who seems to have parachuted in from a completely different movie – one which doesn't require you to actually be able to act). Rockwell is superb, his Dixon a self-destructive powder keg of barely suppressed, unfocused rage almost – but not entirely – masking a better man beneath, and watch out for rising British star Caleb Landry-Jones, who's great as advertising agent Red Welby (hence the gingerism...)

Frances McDormand purchases advertising space from Caleb Landry-Jones

Twisting and turning like a fairground ride, Three Billboards never quite goes where you expect it to, nor does it conform to any traditional Hollywood tropes – and not least because its wonderful heroine is a feisty fifty-year-old with an undercut. Part inept police procedural, part revenge thriller, part small town family drama, it's a marvellously entertaining, occasionally unsettling and at times even heart-warming ride.

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