If you want to get your message across, stick it on a billboard – or three. That’s exactly what grieving mother Mildred (Frances McDormand in Fargo form) does to get the attention of a complacent local police force, who have failed to uncover any suspects in her daughter’s brutal murder six months ago.

Her bold move works, raising the ire of Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and racist redneck Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), but it also sets in motion a chain of events that will disrupt the entire town, and set Mildred on a collision course with some unsavoury types.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh won fans with the irreverent crime capers In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, thanks to his keen eye for casting and ear for crackling dialogue. Three Billboards is McDonagh’s finest film to date; a sombre and morally grey drama leavened by beats of black humour that hit at exactly the right moments. It’s also impeccably cast, right down to supporting roles for Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and redhead Caleb Landry Jones.    

McDormand’s robust Mildred (a role written specifically for her) is the heartbeat of the film. She’s a feisty, foul mouthed force of nature in a boiler suit, whose grief has solidified into a diamond-hard determination to see justice done. She’s also capable of compassion at the most unlikely moment, and it’s this unpredictability that drives both the characters and the narrative – it’s impossible to anticipate where this pressure cooker tale is headed. It’s like waiting for a stick of dynamite to explode!

What is easier to predict is the film’s chances at the Oscars this year. Nominations for Original Screenplay, Best Actress and Supporting Actor (Rockwell) are virtually a given – and don’t rule out a nod for Best Picture as well.

In cinemas: January 1, 2018star 4 and a half
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Martin McDonagh