Frances McDormand shines in ‘Three Billboards’

She portrays mother of murder victim seeking justice

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Frances McDormand, in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” is like kindling waiting for a flame; every muscle in her face seems to be slowly tightening, one by one. She plays Mildred Hayes, a no-nonsense woman who’s out for revenge. “I’m Angela Hayes’ mother,” she says, in a voice so low you could jump over it. Her daughter, seven months ago, was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant; Mildred, frozen in clenched-jaw heartbreak, needs to know who to blame.

In the movie’s early scenes, we learn of her unusual strategy to reach this end: She rents three billboards on a rural road leading into her small Missouri town, and on them taunts the town’s chief of police, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for not solving the case. A laconic but good-hearted fellow, Willoughby tries to reason with Mildred; no dice. “Looks like we got a war on our hands,” he drawls. Because this is a Martin McDonagh movie (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”), mayhem ensues — of the violent, foul-mouthed, and often darkly comic variety.

But in between the sometimes over-the-top action (I didn’t quite buy Mildred battering high-school kids), a quiet little actors’ movie unfolds, if you listen for it. Sam Rockwell, as hot-tempered cop Dixon, creates a symphony of blustery jerkiness (and, miraculously, makes you feel a bit for the guy); John Hawkes, in just a couple of brief scenes, tells you everything you need to know about Mildred’s ex-husband. (That anger didn’t begin with Angela’s death.)

Harrelson, in one of his most gentle performances (it’s as if Woody the bartender from “Cheers” got a little smarter, learned how to cuss and went into law enforcement), finds a touching chemistry with McDormand; he understands her, even as he’s being driven mad by her. And McDormand, carrying the movie on blue-denimed shoulders, is a wonder. Every now and then, she lets us see the tiniest crack in Mildred’s anger, through which something flickering shines through.