When grieving mother Mildred takes the drastic measure of renting three billboards asking the local Police Chief Willoughby why he has not arrested anyone in the rape and murder of her daughter, the town is thrown into strife. Many believe it is unfair to call out Willoughby. Officer Dixon (an abusive racist cop) is especially incensed, because he feels she has attacked a great man. Add to that, Willoughby is facing a death sentence with cancer.
Three Billboards is a very good film. I want to get that out of the way. The film is heartbreaking, angering and funny. Frances McDormand’s Mildred is both sympathetic and a bit infuriating. In one scene, on a date, she is forced to face that she can be quite insensitive. You understand she is in a lot of pain, but she is remarkably out of touch with the world around her, even when people reach out in kindness. And Woody Harrelson turns in a solid performance as the exasperated Willoughby, a man who seems to believe everyone in town is basically good, including racist Dixon.
And this is kind of the problem the movie has. See, Dixon is a violent racist, one scene plays it up for laughs. In another he violently attacks a the owner of the billboards and punches the man’s secretary in the face. And he just gets fired. Yet the film wants us to see this as a lead up to his redemption. And the film never earns that. There is no evidence he has seen the light for his racism. And even when he has a noble moment, in the end, he and Mildred go on a mission that…well…is morally dark.
I think this was best addressed by video essayist addressed it best in his video “How (Not) To Discuss Racism In Film. I am including it here, but please note there are massive spoilers.