In the Dark: This is no comedy, but one of the best films of the year

Francis Mcdormand as Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

Starring: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell

Directed by: Martin McDonagh

Rated: R

In Martin McDonagh’s prolific history as a writer, most of his work has been for the stage. To date, his best-known screen work is “In Bruges,” which today enjoys an almost cult following.

An Irishman by birth, McDonagh has set most of his plays there. His penchant for dark humor has been explored in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” and “The Pillowman.”

This latest feature that McDonagh wrote and directed is set in the states, and in something that Southeast Texans might find hits close to home, it involves a grieving mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand), who rents out three derelict billboards to send a message to the local authorities who have failed to solve the gruesome rape and murder of her teenage daughter seven months before.

She’s angry, and she has a right to be. The billboards call out the police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), by name and question why he doesn’t have a suspect. The unwanted attention turns the townspeople of Ebbing and the police force against her, and sympathy for her dead daughter is in short supply — something that seems to stoke Mildred’s anger even more.

Don’t be fooled by the trailer that attempts to portray this as more of a comedy than it really is. All the characters have sharp tongues, but there is an amazing amount of composition here that seems to say that no one is all good or all bad, and redemption is possible. All of these characters are flawed, including Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a flippant police officer with a short temper. All are compromised in some way, whether it’s out of grief or anger, or something undefined, and because of that, bad decisions are made that lead to even worse consequences.

McDonagh has assembled an amazing cast. Besides McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell, there is also young Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”) as Mildred’s son Robbie, veteran John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband whose new young girlfriend can’t remember if the sport with horses and mallets is polo or polio; and Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones” as a surprise ally in Mildred’s cause.

In the end, it’s McDormand and Rockwell that carry the show. McDormand is great as this kind of character — rough around the edges, unvarnished and angry. Mildred has hints of “Olive Kitteridge,” but in coveralls and ponytail. She’s so strong and sure in the role that she almost overpowers her costars in scene after scene.

The revelation is Rockwell as the cop who lives with his mother and copes with his shortcomings by drinking way too much. He’s loyal to a fault, hotheaded and hard to read. He suffers the most throughout the movie, and Rockwell delivers — there is not a false note in his performance. It’s hard to find sympathy for a guy like Dixon, and yet Rockwell makes you understand him.

I see at least three Oscar nominations for this: McDormand for Best Actress, Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor, and McDonagh for Original Screenplay. Other possibles are McDonagh for Best Director and Harrelson in one of the Actor categories.

Oh, and don’t forget Best Picture. This will be on a lot of Top 10 Lists by the end of the year. It will certainly be on mine.

This movie is playing in Houston theaters now.