It’s not the crime, it’s the victims. Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri, the third film from writer/director Martin McDonagh, opens in limited release this week.

It’s been eight months since Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand) daughter was raped and murdered in a field outside Ebbings, Missouri. Incensed that there haven’t been any arrests in the case as that local police seem to be preoccupied with other matter, Hayes purchases advertisements on three billboards stating “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

The chief in question (Woody Harrelson) is upset by the billboards but tries to reason with Hayes, firmly reinforcing his resoluteness in finding the killer. His subordinate, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is much less understanding and begins to threaten both Hayes and the advertising agency that allowed her to purchase the billboards.

As the story unfolds we learn more about what causes Dixon’s bad behavior, how Hayes parenting may have contributed to her family falling apart and why Willoughby is preoccupied. Town secrets are exposed and more residents enter this twisted story that continues to take unexpected turns.

It is in those turns where Three Billboards sets itself apart as one of the finest films of the year. This film could have worked as a whodunnit or an analysis of police brutality or a character piece about a woman determined to get justice for her daughter. Instead, it’s none of that and all of that at the same time. An incredibly complex and layered film that spins off in a number of directions that never seem apparent at its outset.

Yet the film finds all of its divergences in its characters. Nothing feels forced or twisty just for the sake of being twisty – everything that unfolds is motivated by the film’s richly drawn characters and a town with a history between its principles that runs very deep. It never gets lost in any of that either, where McDonagh’s previous work has focused too much on the revelation of backstory, this film pushes the story forward and uses those histories to inform its progress. A real masterclass in how rich information can make a story that much more impactful and allow the filmmaker to paint with a much broader brush.

The film’s three leads bring McDonagh’s characters to life with incredible depth and empathy. There’s a lot of bluster on the surface for these characters, but each actor finds the insecurities behind that bravado and roots their characters in that psychology. The performances allow the film to become intimate character performances of its three leads while the plot pushes forward with abandon. Without such strong performances the film would not have been able to support this ambition, but all three are certified Oscar-worthy in this film.

Three Billboards is a near-perfect film. The only small drawback is that it maybe it goes in one too many directions and has a one or two too many characters than it really needed. A tighter film is perfect, but as it stands Billboards is an excellent piece of work from McDonagh and by far his finest film to date.

No matter how may directions it goes.

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