After making an impossibly strong debut feature with In Bruges, and continuing with the well received (though slightly disappointing) Seven Psychopaths, writer/director Martin McDonagh has returned with his latest, and greatest, work to date; the unmissable Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Olive Kitteridge star Frances McDormand leads the impressive ensemble cast as Mildred; a woman who, a year after the rape and murder of her daughter, takes out three billboard ads to ask why the police have made no arrests. Needless to say this not only riles up local police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, War For the Planet of the Apes) and his deputies, but several members of the stereotypical rural town in which they reside.

As they attempt to reinvigorate the investigation into her daughter’s death, and serve as both a coping mechanism, and stepping stone, to overcoming her grief, Mildred’s billboards prove to be impossible for the townsfolk to ignore; and it’s both their wildly differing reactions to her plight (ranging from sympathy and enthusiastic praise, to violent aggression), and the unrelenting nature of her steadfast, mission-driven, mindset which makes Three Billboards a joy to behold.

Peppering the dark subject matter with more than a healthy dose of unexpectedly hilarious humour, amongst some truly emotional issues; we’re not only dealing with the grief of a lost child, but some (slightly under-explored) racial issues, mortality and terminal illness (Willoughby’s cancer providing the Chief with a sympathetic edge, and allowing for some wonderfully touching exchanges between he and Mildred), and domestic violence, to name a few; which are so well woven together you’ll be crying laughing, and stunned into a sombre silence mere moments later. It’s storytelling at its best; emotional, engaging, and above all entertaining.

Yet it’s not only McDonagh’s impressively tight writing (creating a town full of believably flawed individuals with which to fill this emotionally challenging, comedy/drama) or Ben Davis’ wonderful cinematography, which make Billboards a true cinematic event; the acting, from everyone involved is second-to-none. Frances McDormand gets the majority of the screen time, and uses it to give the strongest performance of her career; appearing every bit as battered, bruised, and belligerent as Mildred should; letting us see her vulnerable side, while maintaining a tough exterior no-one would mess with.

Likewise Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby, the hard-nosed Sheriff annoyed with the accusatory tone of the billboards, appears both mean-spirited and kind in equal measure (wanting to clear his name and remove the ads above finding the killer, but sympathising with Mildred’s loss, appearing to be an outwardly decent family man, and caring for some of the less deserving members of his town/office), and Woody has no problems making viewers fell for him in both regards.

Sam Rockwell (Seven Psychopaths) also puts in a stellar turn as officer Dixon; an uneducated, outwardly racist, character who’s the very definition of a Southern-hick; a rather despicable person on the whole, whose aggressive nature leads him to violently protect the Chief’s honour. Rockwell’s had practice pulling off this type of role before, and slides into with ease, but truly excels and gets to exhibit his acting prowess by giving Dixon a sympathetic edge particularly in the latter half of the film.

Yet it’s not just the three main stars who put in excellent performances; every single member of the supporting cast is not only well placed in their role, but gets their own shining moment to deliver an impactful showing; including In Bruges star Zeljko Ivanek as the local Desk Sergeant, Abbie Cornish (Sucker Punch) as the Chief’s wife, Caleb Landry Jones (American Made) as the billboard owner who comes under fire for allowing Mildred’s ads to be place, John Hawkes (Deadwood) as Mildred’s violent ex-husband, and Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) as another local resident.

It’s a testament to McDonagh’s writing, that so many members of the cast get their own shining moment; not simply because an explosive scene has been written into the script, but because McDonagh has crafted a town populated with believable characters, all of whom are deeply flawed in their own way; even though we feel for Mildred’s plight, it’s impossible to agree with all of her irrational actions, and McDonagh has managed to make every character just as flawed, relatable, and infinitely watchable as his unflinching, uncompromising, heroine.

In short, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is an astounding piece of cinema; it’s the best written film in years, packed full of exceptional performances from an energetic and enjoyable ensemble cast, which instead of using its dark humour as a crutch to hide any dramatic failings, uses it to enhance the emotional backbone of its grief-stricken plot.

Not only does it look fantastic, and find itself backed-up by a perfectly fitting score from Carter Burwell, but it’s an emotional rollercoaster of a film which is darkly humorous, tragically beautiful, and an F-bomb laden cinematic masterpiece. Meaning Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a true must-see movie, and deserving of every single award and award nomination its guaranteed to pick up this awards season.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
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Matt Wheeldon is the Founder, and Editor in Chief of Good Film Guide. He still refers to the cinema as "the pictures", and has what some would describe as a misguided appreciation for Waterworld.