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Film / Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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"All this anger, man. It just begets greater anger."

Raped while dying
And still no arrests?
How come, Chief Willoughby?
What the three billboards say

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) is the third feature film from Martin McDonagh. It stars Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage.

Months after her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) is brutally murdered, Mildred Hayes (McDormand) buys the advertising rights to three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri and broadcasts the police department's inefficiency at finding any leads on the case. This puts Mildred in a town-wide controversy concerning her words against the recently cancer-diagnosed Police Chief Bill Willoughby (Harrelson), who is also fiercely backed by the angry, racist Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell). Determined to keep the case in the public eye, Mildred loses favor with the townspeople as she continues to harass the police department, fueling a war that starts to take a violent turn.

Character tropes go on to the Characters Sheet.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny:
    • When Willoughby confesses in his letter that he paid for the billboards to be kept up for the month after his suicide purely to cause Mildred more grief, Mildred lets out a mild chuckle.
    • Willoughby himself states he found it amusing that Mildred drilled a hole in big fat Geoffrey's big fat thumb.
  • Advertised Extra:
    • While he's far from an extra if you only looked at the advertising, then you'd think that Willoughby is the movie's second biggest role, when in actuality, it's Dixon.
    • Straighter examples would be John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage, who are both noticeable and somewhat important figures in the story, but fairly small roles overall.
  • Age-Gap Romance:
    • Although not commented on, Chief Willoughby is visibly and considerably older than his wife.note 
    • A much bigger example and one commented on in the film would be Charlie and Penelope. The actors had an age difference of more than three decades.
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Mildred is an unusual variation, embarrassing Robbie through her unpopular, unflinching use of the billboards rather than through coddling or public humiliation. (Though kneeing two people in the groin at his school for throwing a soda can at her car and then lying about not having seen it happen is fairly embarrassing.)
  • Artistic License – Medicine:
    • Somebody with burns as extensive as Dixon's would not be placed in a shared hospital room, due to the very high risk of infection. He would also not be discharged from the hospital after a mere couple of weeks — in reality he would require months of treatment and rehabilitation.
    • While not wholly impossible, Willoughby would be very unlikely to cough up blood as a symptom of pancreatic cancer. The pancreas is part of the digestive system, not the respiratory system, and the two are not connected. He could have metastases on his lungs, but even then he wouldn't be likely to cough blood. Especially without any other respiratory symptoms, such as regular coughing or shortness of breath.
  • At Least I Admit It: When Charlie confronts Mildred over the billboards and her stubborn refusal to take them down, he points out that paying for them won't bring their daughter back or find justice for her. Mildred retorts that sleeping with a nineteen-year-old isn't going to do so either. Charlie concedes so, but points out that the difference between them is that he's not acting like it will.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Charlie goes from taunting to apprehensive when he sees Mildred approaching him with a wine bottle, apparently ready to start a fight. It ends up being a taut goodwill parting gesture.
  • Bar Brawl: Invoked by Dixon to get a hand on the man's DNA he suspected to be Angela's murderer.
  • Bathos: Just as the argument between Mildred and Charlie — with some appearances by Robbie — is getting heated, Penelope enters the house, wanting to know where the bathroom is.
  • Bittersweet Ending: We never find out who killed Angela, but Mildred and Dixon appear to have a newfound respect for each other and are possibly going to take justice into their own hands regarding the fate of another rapist.
  • Black Comedy: Par for the course with Martin McDonagh, though this trope is less present here than in his previous movies.
  • Blatant Lies: When Willoughby shows up at the gift shop where Mildred works to ask about the dentist's allegations against her, he asks if she's been to the dentist. Her denial would be more convincing if her speech weren't slurred from the novocaine in her jaw.
  • Blood from the Mouth: A sign of doom for Willoughby when he coughs out blood, smearing Mildred.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Someone in a group of Robbie's fellow students lobs a can of soda at Mildred's car when she's driving him to school. They come to regret it when she stops, walks up to them, and delivers a brutal Groin Attack to two of them when they claim not to have seen who threw it.
  • Central Theme: As found by Charlie's ditsy girlfriend on a bookmark she had, "Anger begets more anger." It is only when Mildred and Dixon try to move past their anger at others that they are able to make personal progress.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: The characters indulge in it often. Best case being Mildred as she drives by a reporter covering the newly-burnt billboards and suggesting that this may put an end to the story:
    Mildred: This didn't put an end to shit, you fucking retard; this is just the fucking start. Why don't you put that on your Good Morning Missouri fucking wake up broadcast, bitch?
  • Country Matters: Robbie refers to both his mother and sister as cunts in a flashback, though they were calling each other that before he chimed in.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Mildred stores a fire extinguisher in her car which comes in handy when putting out the billboard fire.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Angela was not only raped while dying but was set on fire, leaving a scorched mark that persists to the present day.
  • Dead Man Writing: Chief Willoughby narrates his own suicide letter, as well as the ones he leaves for the other characters.
  • Dead Star Walking: Downplayed with Chief Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson). He is Driven to Suicide early in the film, but his voice is heard thrice after through the letters he left behind for Mildred, Dixon, and his wife Anne. And despite this early physical exit, he’s still the third biggest role in the film.
  • Description Cut: The letter Dixon received ends with "you've had a run of bad luck, but things are gonna change for you. I can feel it."... just as a Molotov Cocktail is thrown at the table right in front of him, making him finally notice the police station is under attack.
  • Destination Defenestration: Dixon throws Red out of his own office window in misplaced retribution after the chief's death.
  • A Dick in Name: When Jerome first meets Dixon, he puts a heavy emphasis on the first syllable of his surname.
  • Digging Yourself Deeper: Dixon tries to correct Mildred's statement that he's in the "nigger-torturing business" by saying it's the "'people of color'-torturing business", and it gets worse once the chief arrives.
  • Domestic Abuse: Mildred divorced Charlie because of this, though Angela and Robbie both claim that they never saw any evidence of this being true. When Charlie grabs Mildred in the midst of an argument, Robbie's extremely fast and apparently reflexive reaction of grabbing a kitchen knife and putting it to Charlie's throat suggests that he was likely lying in order to preserve a more positive image of his father.
  • Donut Mess with a Cop: Mildred claims the police waste time at Krispy Kreme.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The title refers to the three billboards that Mildred buys out (as well as the town she resides in), as well as the collective misery of the characters slowly ebbing away.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Mildred apparently didn't consider the fact that burning down the police station would cause most (if not all) of the evidence for her daughter's death to be destroyed, making the chances of finding the killer much slimmer.
  • Driven to Suicide: Willoughby shoots himself in the head since he knows his cancer will kill him anyway, and he didn't want to endure any more pain caused by the disease, as well as witnessing his wife and daughters suffer as they watch him deteriorate.
  • Easily Forgiven: At the end, when Mildred and Dixon are driving to Idaho to maybe kill a rapist (not the one who killed Mildred's daughter), Mildred confesses that she was the one who burned down the police station (and seriously burned half of Dixon's body-she didn't know he was inside), he just casually says "Who the fuck else would it be?"
  • Empathy Doll Shot: During Willoughby's Dead Man Writing speech we get a shot of a teddy bear on the riverside where his children played earlier.
  • Empty Bedroom Grieving: Mildred goes to the bedroom of her late daughter Angela and remembers her last conversation with her where they had a huge argument which ends with Angela storming out of the house and saying she hopes she gets raped on the way with Mildred yelling, "Yeah, I hope you get raped too." Unfortunately, Angela did get raped and murdered causing Mildred to regret what she had said to her.
  • Establishing Character Moment: After her tough-as-nails and vulgar request for the billboards, Mildred flips over a beetle that's struggling on its back so that it can walk again, showing a soft side to her hardened exterior.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • Mildred is concerned when Willoughby coughs up blood and rushes to get him medical attention.
    • Before throwing Molotov cocktails at the police station, Mildred calls several times to make sure no one's inside — though Dixon doesn't notice.
  • Finale Title Drop: Inverted. We see the three billboards in the opening shot.
  • Fingore: Mildred grabs her dentist's drill and puts a hole straight through one of his thumbs.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: Dixon states that an official complaint against the billboards came from "a fat dentist." The very next scene is Mildred having her teeth worked on by the very same; she finds out in a tense, nerve-wracking scene that he is friends with Willoughby.
  • Foreshadowing: When Mildred reads one of Willoughby's suicide notes, he suggests that someone down the line will get caught bragging to a buddy over what they did to Angela. Dixon overhears a man that previously threatened Mildred boasting to a friend over a crime he committed similar in nature to what happened to Angela, but it turns out he is not her actual killer.
  • Forgiveness: The film's Central Theme.
    • Red, who is still recovering from his injuries, has a badly burnt Dixon at his mercy when they have to share a room in the hospital. They end up reconciling over some orange juice.
    • Dixon forgiving Mildred, despite still feeling that she is responsible for Willoughby's suicide and knowing she is directly responsible for the fire that scarred him.
    • Mildred's arc revolves around her desperately trying to forgive herself for the last words she had said to Angela, as she even apologizes to a deer which she personified as her daughter. She later forgives her ex-husband after he drunkenly admits to setting her billboards on fire, and shows gratitude to Dixon despite the ex-cop having repeatedly gone out of his way to harass her and her friends.
    • And of course, the Arc Words: "Anger just begets greater anger".
  • A Good Way to Die: Willoughby spends his last day before committing suicide taking a day off with his family, playing silly games with his daughters, making love to his wife, and petting and feeding his beloved horses. He even plans how to best mitigate the pain of his passing by writing a series of suicide notes to encourage his wife and Dixon, and he gets the last laugh on Mildred by paying for the signs to stay up, leaving her to deal with the consequences.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Mildred is a grieving mother who just wants her daughter's rapist/murderer found, but the lengths she goes to and her general unpleasant personality manage to make her very unsympathetic at times. On the other side, we have the police, specifically Dixon, who is a very racist, incompetent cop, but one who respects his boss Willoughby deeply and who really did want to do good in his community and eventually achieves redemption.
  • Groin Attack: Mildred kicks two students (a boy and a girl) in the groin after one of them throws a soda can at her car.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Even if you experience a great tragedy, even something as severe as your child being murdered and never receiving closure as to who did it or why, you can't use that as an excuse to let anger and grief turn you into a terrible person.
    • Be careful what you say to someone you care about, you may never know if that is the last time you will see them alive. If your final words are not pleasant, it will be a guilt you carry for the rest of your life.
  • Hate Sink:
    • Dixon is a racist waste of a man who does nothing but abuse his status as a cop to assault and intimidate innocents. Then his Dark and Troubled Past is revealed, and he starts making a genuine effort to atone for his misdeeds. However, whether the second half of the film makes up for his acts before is up to the viewer.
    • Given his abuse of Mildred, Charlie also qualifies, despite having significantly less screen time. Unlike Dixon however, he does not show significant signs of becoming a better person.
  • Headphones Equal Isolation: Dixon fails to notice that something is seriously wrong in the office (i.e. that Chief Willoughby has committed suicide) because he's listening to "Chiquitita" by ABBA. A more serious example happens when he returns to the police station late at night and fails to hear the phone ringing (which is Mildred calling to make sure the station is empty before she firebombs it), and fails to notice that the station is on fire.
  • Heel Realization:
    • While Mildred has several My God, What Have I Done? moments, it seems to be when James delivers his "The Reason You Suck" Speech about how angry she is that she fully realizes just how low her anger and hate have caused her to sink.
    • Dixon gets one from Willoughby's letter, which admonishes him that his hate is keeping him from being a good detective, and that he needs to embrace love in order to do so.
  • Hollywood Law:
    • At one point Dixon beats Red to a pulp and throws him out of a second story window in front of a street full of witnesses, including the new chief of police. His only punishment is getting fired instead of, you know, being immediately arrested for assault and attempted murder.
    • When the new chief walks in and introduces himself to the assembled Ebbing Police, the desk sergeant asks him to prove who he is. The chief acts like this an absurd request and doesn't even bother to show them his badge. Somewhat justified in that he had just seen Dixon violently assault two people, and wasn't particularly impressed with the other cops, who were actively ignoring it.
  • Honor Before Reason: During an intense interrogation scene in which they both lob their best insults at each other, Willoughby suddenly coughs a massive amount of blood out of his mouth, inadvertently spraying Mildred. His first response is not to freak out at the prospect of coughing up a good portion of blood, but instead to profusely apologize to Mildred for doing so. Thankfully she has the proper response, and immediately runs to get assistance for him.
  • Implausible Deniability: Mildred claims not to have been to the dentist, while talking through a mouthful of Novocaine.
  • I Take Offence to That Last One: When Robbie calls Mildred "an old cunt," Mildred snaps back "I'm not old!" (although it is done with good humor, to show that she didn't take the insult seriously).
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Mildred's anger at what happened to her daughter and the failure of the police to find who did it is valid, but she's let it corrode her into an unpleasant and vindictive person lashing out at people who don't entirely deserve it.
  • Just Train Wrong: The shop where Mildred and Denise work is near the railroad tracks. In one scene, a train is shown passing in the background. It is clearly a hodgepodge of vintage rolling stock rented from a railroad museum, not a working freight train that would be running anywhere in 21st century America.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Angela's killer is never caught.
    • Mildred also never gets in trouble for setting fire to the police department.
  • Kick the Dog: The guy who comes into the gift shop and taunts Mildred over her daughter's death, commenting he wishes he'd been there to rape her himself.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Officer Dixon is a racist bully who throws his weight around town and is heavily implied to have tortured a "person-of-color" in a previous incident that he was never punished for. His comeuppance arrives after he throws Red through a window and viciously beats him in front of the whole town, pausing only to snarl a threat towards a dumbfounded African-American man watching him... who turns out to be the new police chief, who promptly fires him.
  • Left Hanging: Those hoping to see Angela's killer be revealed will be left sorely disappointed.
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Chief Willoughby takes his family on a picnic out by the lake. While the children are playing, the chief and his wife sneak away to have sex outdoors. That evening Chief Willoughby commits suicide.
  • May–December Romance: Despite being in his fifties, Charlie has been dating a nineteen-year-old, which he has no problem admitting is a way to cope with his grief.
  • Molotov Cocktail: Mildred uses several to firebomb the police station.
  • Mood Whiplash: Hilarious moments are repeatedly followed by dramatic, appalling and downright depressing ones. The interrogation scene where Mildred and Bill go into Snark-to-Snark Combat is interrupted by the latter coughing blood in her face.
  • The Mountains of Illinois: Ebbing is set in some majestic mountains unlike anything that is found in Missouri. The film was shot in North Carolina and makes no attempt to hide it.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Mildred gets a few of these moments throughout the story:
    • At one point, she has an argument with her son about the billboards, during which he explodes and points out that in his struggle to process the horrible way his sister died and his grief over it, the last thing he wants is to see three huge billboards barely 500 feet away from his own home boldly proclaiming what happened to all who pass by them. From the taken-aback look on her face and the almost pathetically quiet way she tries to defend herself, it's pretty clear that Mildred is just realizing that she didn't consider even for a second what effect her billboards would have on her son.
    • Mildred is horrified when she realizes that she burned down the police station while Dixon was still inside.
    • She looks genuinely surprised and guilty when James delivers "The Reason You Suck" Speech after she accuses him of forcing her into dating him.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • Willoughby's unwillingness to ever punish Dixon for anything has seriously stunted him as a person and a cop, leading to a lot of the conflict in the movie. Willoughby's suicide note combined with his firing nearly push Dixon in the right direction, but in a lot of ways it's too late; Dixon might be less violent, but he still never really confronts or grows past the "person of color-torturing" side of himself.
    • Mildred burning down the police station in a fit of anger almost results in the evidence in Angela's case being destroyed.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Most of the cops (hell, most of the people of Ebbing) say or do things that could lightly be described as "offensive," particularly Dixon. Willoughby tells Mildred that, "If he fired every racist cop, he would have three left," and they would be homophobes. That said, most of the cops are portrayed as at least trying to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. This includes Dixon, albeit only after he no longer has a badge.
  • No Ending: The film ends inconclusively; Mildred never learns who raped and murdered her daughter and the one lead that seemed like it might lead to the murderer turned out to be a dead end. Mildred and Dixon decide to go after him anyway since he was bragging about raping and murdering someone, though in the car on the way there, they are unsure whether they plan to actually kill him or not. All the subplots are similarly inconclusive.
  • Noodle Incident: A past "persons of color-torturing" scandal (also referred to in less savory terms) apparently involving Dixon is mentioned a few times, but no details are ever given. At one point Willoughby almost denies that it happened, but hesitates and simply says that it was never proven.
  • Odd Couple: At a certain point, Mildred goes out on a date with the town dwarf, played by Peter Dinklage.
  • The Oner: The scene of Dixon leaving the station to assault the ad shop workers and returning is done in one long take.
  • One-Woman Wail: Shown on-screen in the case of Willoughby's wife, though it's muted as his Dead Man Writing is narrated.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Mildred, of course, outlives the raped and murdered Angela. Not helping is that their very last interaction with each other was an argument, to Mildred’s regret.
  • Parents as People: Mildred is not exactly a candidate for mother of the year. While she clearly loves her son, he appears to be something of an afterthought to her own rage and grief (she's genuinely taken aback when Robbie furiously points out that the last thing he wants is to be constantly reminded of the horrific nature of his sister's death by three huge billboards proclaiming it within eyeshot of his house, suggesting that she didn't bother considering how he might feel about it before erecting them), the one flashback we see of her interacting with her daughter involves a bitter argument between them, and it seems that her relationship with her daughter was so sour that Angela expressed a desire to live with her wife-beating Disappeared Dad rather than her.
  • Parting-Words Regret: In a flashback, Angela storms out of the house saying she hopes she gets raped. Mildred responds "Yeah, I hope you get raped too." Angela actually is raped and murdered after this, which torments Mildred.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • The characters' willingness to do this for people they should hate is a major theme throughout the movie: including James rushing to put out Dixon while he's on fire, Welby getting Dixon a straw for his orange juice while the latter is hospitalized with burns, Dixon saving the Angela Hayes murder file from being burned and Mildred telling Charlie to take good care of Penelope.
    • As an Establishing Character Moment, Mildred flips over a beetle that is struggling on its back, showing that she's a decent person.
  • Police Are Useless: Ironically, everyone except Chief Willoughby is, and he's dying of cancer. The new chief is clearly more competent than most of the department, but he still doesn't arrest Dixon after being a firsthand witness to him throwing a guy out a window. Really, it's hard to argue with Mildred when she says the cops are blatantly incompetent.
  • Police Brutality: No tortures are shown but this trope is invoked as a Noodle Incident in regard to Dixon and people of color. We also see Dixon throw Red out of the window in a fit.
  • Product Placement: For Doritos and various brands of cereal, most blatantly.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Abercrombie (the replacement for Willoughby after his suicide) fires Dixon immediately after witnessing the latter throwing Red out a window and is extremely reasonable when dealing with Mildred.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • James delivers one when Mildred accuses him of 'forcing' her to date him, angrily pointing out that he merely asked her out after helping her and that while he's aware he's not exactly many people's idea of a catch, she has no room to judge him considering that she's become so bitter, angry and hate-filled that she'd stoop to firebombing a police station.
    • Mildred gives a blistering one to the Reverend when he comes by and reprimands her about the billboards.
  • Red Herring:
    • It starts to look as if a man that threatened Mildred midway through the film and suggested he harmed Angela was indeed her killer, but after Dixon sends in his DNA sample, the new chief informs him that the man was nowhere in town (or even the country) when Angela's murder took place.
    • To a lesser extent, it seems that Dixon was the one who torched the three billboards, until Charlie reveals that he actually did it.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Anne, Willoughby's wife, and she pretty much vanishes from the movie after his suicide.
  • Shout-Out: Possibly unintentional, but Angela Hayes shares the same name as a main character from the 1999 film American Beauty—another teenager in American Flyover Country who is similarly made the object of a man's sexual fantasies (but with a much luckier fate).
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Most of the cast, but Mildred, Willoughby and Dixon especially.
  • Spiteful Spit:
    • Mildred spits on her dentist Geoffrey after drilling his finger.
    • Dixon spits on Red after knocking him down.
    • Jerome spits on the ground in front of Dixon.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Dixon viciously assaults Red Welby after Willoughby's death, culminating in tossing him out a window. He is promptly fired for assaulting a civilian as the new chief has no personal fondness for him and so won't look the other way as Willoughby often did.
  • Troll: Welby and his painters give their sass to the cops when they're confronted about putting up Mildred's message on the billboards, such as repeating "What?" or feigning answers to their questions.
  • Turn of the Millennium: At first glance the movie seems contemporary in setting, but upon closer inspection it doesn't quite seem to be The Present Day relative to its release in the mid-2010s: it looks modern enough, and one character uses "Google" as a verb, but there's a good mix of old cars as far back as The '80s if not earlier alongside the vaguely post-millennium cars; the only TV sets shown being used are similarly old CRT models; and the film is virtually devoid of smartphones or social media use: the only mobile phone shown is a flip phone used for a call, and that's about it. Plausibly the movie could be set as far back as the mid-2000s.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Of Steve Page's likely murder of his estranged wife Kathy, the botched investigation of which prompted her father to put up multiple billboards blasting the police for their incompetence and corruption. Martin McDonagh was inspired to create the movie because of this.
  • Vomiting Cop: Dixon is nauseated by pictures of Angela's burnt body. His unfazed superior, Chief Willoughby, sarcastically puts his reaction down to a hangover.
  • Wham Line: Charlie admitting to drunkenly burning down the billboards Mildred could barely afford.
  • Wham Shot:
    • Mildred discovering that the billboards are on fire.
    • Dixon assaults Red in full view of bystanders. After Dixon leaves, one of the bystanders moves his jacket aside to reveal a badge of his own. He's the new chief.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Geoffrey, the dentist who wants to press charges against Mildred for drilling through his thumbnail, is never mentioned again after Willoughby is rushed to the hospital. Humorously lampshaded when Willoughby declares that neither he nor anyone else really cares about dentists.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Robbie gives a small one to Mildred about the billboards constantly reminding him of the details of Angela's brutal death (which he tried to avoid) over and over.
  • When She Smiles: Mildred's one smile in the entirety of the film is at the very end, as she trades friendly snark with Dixon.
  • World of Snark: Everyone who isn't delivering cruel lines is stupid enough to earn being snarked at (i.e., Penelope).
    Angela: Why are you never on my side, Robbie?
    Robbie: I'm always on your side when you're not being a cunt!
    Angela and Mildred: Hey!
    Mildred: There will be no more "cunts" in this house. You got that, mister?
    Robbie: What? Are you moving out?
  • Would Hit a Girl: Such is Mildred's rage over Angela's unsolved murder and the controversy over the billboards that she doesn't think twice about physically attacking anyone who gives her grief, male or female. When one of Robbie's fellow students lobs a soda can at her car while she is dropping him off at school, she ignores his pleas to let it go and confronts the group of students responsible. When she asks a boy if he saw who threw the can and he nonchalantly replies, "What can?", she knees him in the crotch. She then asks a girl if she saw who threw the can, and when the girl begins stammering that she didn't see anything, Mildred kicks her in the crotch as well.

Mildred: Dixon?
Dixon: Yeah?
Mildred: You sure about this?
Dixon: About killin' this guy? Not really. You?
Mildred: Not really. I guess we can decide along the way.