A tar-black comedy so caustic it nearly burns a hole in the screen, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri banks a lot on the gale force of Frances McDormand, and nearly pulls it off. She’ll walk away with an Oscar nod almost as surely as her formidable Mildred Hayes marches into the local rental agency and lays her life savings down on those billboards, blank space she rents to send a message to the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson) that asking nicely hasn’t seemed to accomplish. Specifically, that her daughter has been dead for seven months — raped and beaten and burned alive — and no one has come close to catching who did it.
Ebbing may be slim on civic resources, but it’s fat with characters, from Sam Rockwell’s proudly doltish cop to Harrelson’s profane but softhearted chief and an underused Peter Dinklage as a debonair pool-hall regular bent on romance. This is all razor-blade candy for writer-director Martin McDonagh, who walked the line between dark farce and pathos so brilliantly in 2008’s great In Bruges. Here, though, his comically stylized portrayals of casual racism and random violence tend to push past the self-aware limits of satire, lending a sour edge to the absurdity that Mildred, and McDormand, don’t deserve. B