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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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In Theaters


Home Release Date




Bob Hoose

Movie Review

As Mildred Hays drives down the little street toward her home—a lane mostly ignored by through-traffic now since the main highway was put in—she is not a woman at peace. In fact, her gut twists in a never relaxing knot as tight as her white knuckled grip on the car’s steering wheel. Her anger simmers and bubbles, her mind a slow boil.

Now, admittedly, Mildred isn’t known as the easiest person to get along with. (You can take her ex-husband Charlie’s word on that.) But the majority of the wrath pumping through her throbbing veins can be linked to the fact that the Ebbing, Missouri police force is so …

Well, I can’t repeat what Mildred thinks of them. Or what she readily yells out in public, her face beet red and her language hot enough to burn on contact. Let’s say the local police haven’t lived up to her standards.

Mildred’s daughter, Angela, was brutally raped and murdered right under their noses, you see. And these public servants haven’t lifted a finger to catch her killer. Mildred’s screamed, pleaded, cajoled, begged, and done everything she could think of to get the police chief and his backwater idiots to …

That’s when the idea hits her:

She hasn’t tried advertising. Now, that might sound ridiculous. But those three old, unused and forgotten billboards just east of Ebbing, Missouri, might be just the ticket to really get their attention. No, Mildred may not be able to force the chief to work harder on her daughter’s months-old murder case. But she can sure as shootin’ publically shame him into doing something. Anything.

The billboards can be bright red with bold black letters and simple statements. They can’t be too inflammatory. It can’t use the language that Mildred wants to use for these, uh, gentlemen. But the messages will get noticed, yessiree. And if worded just right they can communicate all the accusatory reproach Mildred is feeling.

Yep, shame has a way of getting attention. And Mildred knows how to use shame. She’s an expert in that department.

[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

Positive Elements

The film delivers a laudable statement in the midst of Mildred’s eventually escalating violent actions, stating: “All this anger, it just begets greater anger.” Chief Willoughby makes a similar statement, opining, “Hate never solved anything.” Unfortunately this heated film never puts its own advice into action. Nor does it show us many other positive choices here.

Two exceptions include when police officer Jason Dixon—after being kicked off the force for his own angry choices—puts his own safety at risk to pursue a potential criminal. He also apologizes for beating someone up in anger.

Chief Willoughby, whom we learn is dying of cancer, writes several letters to be distributed after his death. Those missives encourage several people in his life to make wiser choices and to value the life they’ve been given.

Spiritual Elements

When a local priest come to visit her, Mildred angrily and crudely rails at him—comparing the Catholic church to a gang and suggesting that he and every other churchman is “culpable” for the many abuses of children perpetrated by priests.

Mildred verbally muses over the idea that “there ain’t no God, the world’s empty, and it don’t matter what we do to each other.” She also spots a doe near the spot where her daughter was raped and wonders if the animal is inviting her to believe in reincarnation.

Sexual Content

Chief Willoughby and his family go on a picnic, and he and his wife wander off to have sex in the nearby woods (offscreen). We see them kiss. They later talk about their sexual encounter, including verbal references to the chief’s anatomy.

Mildred says that a local guy named James wants to “get in my pants.” Charlie, her ex, has moved in with a 19-year-old girl and comments fly about his sex life. Mildred’s son Robbie gets angry when his mother declares on a billboard that his murdered sister was raped—something he’s been in denial about.

Violent Content

Someone talks about the excitement of raping a girl while a crowd of men watched. Mildred accuses Dixon and other policemen of “torturing” black people. Other locals echo that accusation. Crude comments are tossed around about the murder of gay men.

Chief Willoughby, as mentioned, has cancer. We see him cough up blood. Eventually the ailing chief decides to commit suicide. He pulls a black bag over his head to spare his wife from seeing the mess, puts a pistol to his temple and shoots himself—a choice the film seems to imply is a courageous one.

Mildred drives a dentist’s drill through a man’s thumbnail as the camera watches closely. She kicks a school age boy and his female friend in the crotch when suspecting them of an offense. Mildred also firebombs the local police station, catching an officer inside. The man jumps through a broken window and tumbles to the street in flames. We later see his burned and scarred face. Someone sets Mildred’s signs on fire, and she burns herself attempting to extinguish the flames.

In a sudden flash of anger, Dixon pistol-whips an innocent man, smashes a second story window and throws the man through it to the ground below. He then storms down to the street and viciously beats the prone and bloodied man. Dixon also gets into a fight with another man and is beaten and kicked brutally. It’s implied that characters are about to murder someone. Several people encourage Mildred to “f–k up those cops.”

Crude or Profane Language

We hear nearly 100 f-words (with about half a dozen or so paired with “mother”). Characters utter more than 15 s-words and multiple uses each of “h—,” “a–” and “b–ch.” We also hear four or five uses of the n-word and about the same number of exclamations of the c-word.
There are nearly 20 misuses of God’s and Jesus’ name (including a dozen or so combinations of God with “d–n”). Chief Willoughby profanes God’s name repeatedly in front of his two tiny daughters, something the movie plays as a joke. But it feels particularly offensive in this context.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Several people drink pretty heavily in a bar and in other social situations—including Mildred and Dixon. They drink beer, wine and alcohol. Dixon and his mother are both obviously alcoholics. He even drinks while he’s on duty.

In a flashback scene, Mildred’s daughter accuses her of chauffeuring kids around while drunk. Her ex, Charlie, admits to setting a fire while drunk. Chief Willoughby and his wife grab a bottle of wine during a picnic. The chief says she has a “chardonnay headache” later on.

Mildred states that someone has been “smoking pot all day.” Dixon and other characters smoke regularly as well.

Other Negative Elements

Ebbing’s residents spit out numerous racial slurs against Mexicans, blacks and whites. Several people call a local little person a “midget,” making fun of his short stature. Dixon’s hard-edged mother suggests he should manipulate Mildred by using his police authority to threaten or arrest her friends.


British writer/director Martin McDonagh paints a discordant picture here of an awful, provincialized Middle America that’s steaming with racial tensions and moral indifference. He depicts rural Ebbing as hard-drinking place, littered with backward, angry and generally irredeemable people.

Now, that may not be the America you know, but it’s definitely one that Hollywood gives us here. And it’s a perfect setting for the self-righteous, rage- and guilt-driven female protagonist at the core of this pic. Mildred’s flyover town is also a suitable place to set up a tug-and-pull tale of feverishly longed-after recompense—a dramatic demand for a “rightful” pound of flesh, no matter whose it is.

Sure, some may say that Three Billboards balances out its ugly side with ample helpings of scripted wit. But it’s a scabrous humor, to be sure. Mildred irreverently growls at all Catholic priests as being “culpable” for child rape, and labels all cops as morally anemic and fundamentally racist. Even Chief Willoughby, the only borderline decent person in town, supports that anti-cop idea.

“If you got rid of every cop with mildly racist leanings, you’d only have 3 cops left,” Willoughby opines. “And they’d all hate f-gs.”


Compound that crude jokiness with a tidal wave of epithets and profanities and some borderline shocking violence, and you’ve got a film that may motivate some coastal elites to praise its dark artiness. But it will leave many others—including millions who know their small towns are not as morally bankrupt as the one depicted here—wishing they’d been more frugal with their entertainment dollars.

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Bob Hoose

After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.