Hell hath no fury like Frances McDormand scorned — that’s one of the reasons we go to the movies. Whether playing it gentle (in “Fargo”) or ferocious (in TV’s “Olive Kitteridge”), the actress has become our resident straight-talking, gimlet-eyed truth teller, wielding a persona both morally grounded and mad as hell.
In the ornately titled “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” writer-director Martin McDonagh leans hard on the scorched-earth aspects of McDormand’s appeal and gives her what may turn out to be her signature role. She plays Mildred Hayes, a citizen of the small rural town of the title, and when the movie opens, her teenage daughter Angela has been dead seven months, raped and murdered, the case unsolved. Mildred’s grief has transformed into rage, and she pays to have three tattered billboards on the old main road plastered with accusations against the local police.
That’s just the start; the ensuing two hours of “Three Billboards” examine the complex fallout from this act in ways broadly comic, startlingly tragic, and ultimately very moving if not quite believable. McDonagh, to his credit, keeps us off-balance in regards to just about everyone. You might expect the town cops to be depicted as racist no-necks out of a Bible Belt dashboard cam feed. In fact only one of them is, and he — Sam Rockwell’s Dixon — is so dumb that the rest of the precinct keep him around mostly out of pity, like a three-legged dog. A rabid, dangerous three-legged dog, but still.
The Ebbing constabulary is more properly represented by Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a seasoned career lawman who’s sympathetic to Mildred but who has taken the case as far as it can go; Willoughby has his own secrets, and Harrelson, who’s just getting better with age, balances the character on a fulcrum of professionalism and taciturn despair.
The billboards upset the balance of Ebbing, the more so when Mildred resists every attempt to have them taken down. She becomes the town pariah, and the great joy of McDormand’s performance is in watching Mildred embrace her role as avenging angel, exploring the freedom that comes with casting every last restraint to the wind. A bandanna cinched around her forehead, she’s Mother Ninja, and it’s hell on her teenage son (Lucas Hedges), his schoolmates, Dixon and his fellow cops, and the dentist to whom she goes for a drilling that she ends up giving instead of getting. None of this mitigates Mildred’s bottomless sorrow, but the movie allows us to appreciate the effects of wrath when it becomes nearly biblical.
McDonagh is a celebrated English-Irish playwright (“The Pillowman,” many others) who has been dabbling in film for the past decade. His feature debut, “In Bruges” (2008), has a healthy cult following for its droll tale of two hit men on tour, while his 2012 follow-up, the anarchic meta-crime comedy “Seven Psychopaths,” was seen by almost no one. I like “In Bruges,” but “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the first McDonagh movie to convince me he takes the form seriously. He still shows little interest in visual niceties, and the new film is shot haphazardly. But the script is pungent and profanely funny while remaining rooted in strong and serious emotions. The movie’s themes — Does rage ever create anything besides more rage? Is forgiveness even possible in a fallen world? — are pursued everywhere, arguably to places they don’t entirely fit.
McDonagh likes to mash together moments of tenderness and violence, and he loves to fill the screen with subsidiary characters clamoring for their moment in the sun: Mildred’s exasperated ex-husband (John Hawkes) and his current girlfriend, a sunny-faced idiot played (delightfully) by Kerry Condon; Caleb Landry Jones as a game young advertising salesman; Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”) as a used car dealer with a drinking problem; Abbie Cornish as the sheriff’s wife, gathering up a fury of her own.
Rockwell’s Dixon ultimately comes to take up nearly as much of the screen time as Mildred, and at a certain point these two immovable forces appear ready to jump the track and switch sides. Here’s where you may part company with “Three Billboards,” and it has nothing to do with Rockwell’s terrific, nuanced portrayal of a cretin slowly waking up to life. Rather, what happens in the film’s final moments simply makes little dramatic sense, and the problem’s in the writing — in McDonagh’s hope that a racist bully might see the error of his ways and have his vile acts discounted once he himself becomes a victim.
You’ll forgive some of us if we’re not in a forgiving mood. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is quite a show and the best evidence yet that someone, somewhere, should erect a statue of Frances McDormand. But it hints that under all of Martin McDonagh’s glittering cynicism and outrage is not humanism but naivete.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 115 minutes. R (violence, language throughout, some sexual references).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.