What the trailer makes look like a comedy is surprisingly very sad. From writer/director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) comes another ambitiously vulgar, sarcastically brilliant script that audiences familiar with his work will admire. His screenplays are always the highlight of the film, due to their provocative language, and I don’t just mean curse words.

One of the drawbacks here are racist and homophobic punch lines. Still, the characters are wildly colorful, and even more interesting than usual due to McDonagh going with a female lead. Frances McDormand (“Hail Caesar,” “Moonrise Kingdom”) has played shades of this role before, it’s sort of her thing. Regardless of the familiarity, she lands so many hilarious and touching moments that elevate “Three Billboards” beyond McDonagh’s typical crime fare. Nearly equal is Sam Rockwell (“The Way Way Back”) who brilliantly delivers in the best role of his career.

Unhappy with the local sheriff’s investigation into the murder of her daughter, Mildred Hayes (McDormand) rents three large billboards just outside of town. She calls out nice guy Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), because the buck must stop somewhere. Willoughby is dying with cancer, and while the town empathizes with Hayes’ loss, they side with the police department against her radical billboards that detail how her daughter died. “Raped while dying.” Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell), a backward racist, takes the most offense to Hayes’ billboards, putting pressure on her friends, in an attempt to end the controversy. Hayes figures the more her daughter’s case stays in the news, the better chance the murderer will be found.

While the story is full of surprising character developments and showing that even bad people have good sides, the biggest shock is just how dark the subject matter is willing to go. It’s rare to see such a sarcastic comedy explore pain, loss and forgiveness the way it’s presented here. The characters, all of them, even down to minor roles like Abbie Cornish, who plays the sheriff’s wife, are unpredictable. At no point in “Three Billboards” do you know how it will end. McDonagh keeps the audience engaged for a solid two hours in a script that’s as fresh as anything we’ve seen this year. Sometimes the vulgarity pushes it’s limits and seems out of place in more intimate moments. But vulgarity has become routine for sarcasm these days and it’s played to full effect, as seen in the red band trailer.

Both McDormand and Rockwell will receive awards attention from the film, I think Rockwell could even win. “Three Billboards” should also dominate in the original screenplay category. One of the most exquisitely written scenes is where Mildred explains “culpability” to the local priest who visits her home. He, too, wants to impress on the removal of the billboards. “Three Billboards” might not have the levity of a Coen Brothers script, but the presentation is certainly in that vein. McDormand owns this film with her grizzly nature and soft inside and if this isn’t a best ensemble nomination, I don’t know what is.

Final thought — Equal part sarcastic humor and painful subject matter.

Dustin Chase is a film critic and associate editor with Texas Art & Film, which is based in Galveston. Visit texasartfilm.com.

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