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“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a powder keg of rage and raw emotion that deftly dances on the line between dark comedy and wrenching drama. Beyond being one of the year’s absolute best films, it is a triumph for writer-director Martin McDonagh and its tremendous ensemble cast.

There’s a scene early on in the film that exemplifies its ability to masterfully maneuver tone. Frances McDormand, in an explosive performance that marks her best work since “Fargo” and may well nab her a second Best Actress Oscar statue, plays Mildred Hayes, a mother whose daughter was brutally raped and murdered. Upset with the lack of action on the part of the local police department to find and catch the killer, she has taken out a series of billboards on the edge of town that take police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his investigation to task. (The billboards, in sequence, read: “Raped while dying,” “and still no arrest?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”)

Mildred and the sheriff meet face to face in a simmering confrontation. It’s heated, and Mildred is at his throat. Words are exchanged, the tension is thick. Then the sheriff suddenly coughs up blood, and Mildred’s fury instantly turns to compassion.

Beyond their respective roles in the situation — the angry mother, the tough cop — they are both human, and furthermore we’re all only human, trying to get through this life together. The sharp turn in the mood of the scene shows the grace of McDonagh’s screenplay and direction, and speaks to the current climate of madness in America today. Underneath our aggression and the guises we put on, we’re all in this together, like it or not, and we’re all just trying to push forward.

That is one of the reasons “Three Billboards” is so resonant: it taps into the exasperation of today without coming off like a civics lesson. It’s a wildly entertaining ride, a surprise given the subject matter, and another testament to McDonagh’s golden touch.

McDonagh made a splash with his debut feature, 2008’s “In Bruges,” a crime caper with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as a pair of hitmen hiding out in Belgium. He stumbled with his follow-up, the scattershot “Seven Psychopaths,” but “Three Billboards” is his most accomplished work yet, and will likely earn him a trip to the Oscars for either his writing or directing (or both).

The other likely Oscar candidate in the pool is Sam Rockwell, who also worked with McDonagh on “Seven Psychopaths.” Rockwell is a tricky actor, and he tends to play most of his characters about six shades too cool for school. Even when he’s called on to play a father role, like in 2014’s “Laggies,” he plays the part like a rock ‘n’ roll front man taking a side gig as a neighborhood dad.

But here, as inept racist deputy Jason Dixon, Rockwell is spot-on. His character has a full redemptive arc, transitioning from bully-jerk to exalted hero, which gives him a wide range from which to pull.

He is marvelous, and it’s Rockwell’s best screen work to date.

Rounding out the impressive ensemble cast are Caleb Landry Jones (who it’s safe to say, between his roles in “Get Out,” “The Florida Project,” “American Made” and TV’s “Twin Peaks,” is the year’s best offbeat good luck charm), John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Clarke Peters and Brendan Sexton III, who all contribute to the film’s sense of homegrown, small-town reality.

There is plenty to admire in “Three Billboards,” a Molotov cocktail of a human drama. Light the wick, give it a good toss and watch this beautiful fire burn.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘Three Billboards Outside

Ebbing, Missouri’

GRADE: A

Rated R for violence, language throughout,

and some sexual references

Running time: 115 minutes

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