It's not the titular "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" that cause a monumental fuss in that imaginary small town, it's what's unexpectedly written on them.
Blank for years, hugging a bend in the road like lonely sentinels doggedly doing their duty, they send a blistering message in enormous black letters on a 20-foot-high background of the brightest red:
"Raped While Dying"
"And Still No Arrests?"
"How Come, Chief Willoughby?"
In the hands of uncommon writer-director Martin McDonagh and a splendid cast toplined by Frances McDormand in what could be the role of her rich and varied career, the how and why of those billboards becomes a savage film, even a dangerous one, the blackest take-no-prisoners farce in quite some time.
Bleak humor notwithstanding, "Three Billboards," concerned as it is with grief, revenge, the nature of violence and the pervasiveness of despair, has serious issues on its mind. But if you're expecting anything close to pious moralizing, you are very much in the wrong place.
If Martin McDonagh's name means something, either from plays like "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" and "The Pillowman" or unhinged movies like "In Bruges" (which got him an Oscar nomination), you know that audacious is a tepid word for work that delights in saying the unsayable and doing the unthinkable.
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But no matter what you know, you won't be completely prepared for this energetically demented production that removes the footing from under our expectations with unnerving consistency. Don't think of outguessing the turns taken, just keeping track of them is hard enough.