Imaging a bunch of depressing events coming your way simultaneously: your dog dies, you lose your job, and are close to living out on the street.
Now imagine after all this, the person responsible comes up to you and tells a dick joke. As funny as said dick joke may be, you can't really understand the context of why all this is happening.
That is Three Billboards in a nutshell. In the wake of her daughter's rape and murder, Mildred Hayes puts up three billboards which call out the inactions of the town's police force. This sets off a maelstrom of events which shake up the darker side of the community.
To name the number of sensitive issues this movie talks about would be trying to read the grocery list of a family of seven. Rape, murder, corruption, racism, domestic violence - the problem is, not one of these are given the attention they deserve. Most of the topics are mentioned in passing, only to never be brought up again other than for the sole purpose of their tragic meaning.
Take for example the murder and rape of Mildred's daughter, Angela. Despite being the focal point which sets off the events of the film, the context and details of the crime are given very little attention. You can't sympathize with Mildred because the film shows very little of what her daughter was like when she was alive. Given what little you do see of Angela, you still don't feel compelled to feel for her or her family.
This lack of emphasis spills out into every crevice of the movie; from Chief Bill Willoughby's dealings with cancer to deputy Jason Dixon's poorly suppressed racism and bigotry. The sensitive issues are just there to drive home the point that this is a small-minded town with a community worse than The Simpsons' Springfield.
The movie also doesn't seem to know what it wants to be, constantly shifting from murder mystery to drama to comedy.
Speaking of comedy and those aforementioned dick jokes, the funnies in Three Billboards come at the weirdest times. While people with a bleak outlook on life such as myself will get out of jokes about murder, suicide, and arson, I doubt everyone would appreciate the darker tone of its comedy.
Which brings me to the acting. Frances McDormand's portrayal of Mildred Hayes pretty much carries the rest of the cast throughout the whole movie. When you have to play a single mom who just went through hell, delivering a Clint Eastwood-like attitude which makes you wish she was your mom instead speaks volumes.
Likewise, Woody Harrelson as Chief Bill Willoughby helps complement McDormand's Mildred by being the voice of reason to the batshit crazy lady. Apart from these two standout actors, Sam Rockwell as Deputy Jason Dixon makes you hate the character at first (since who would love a racist policeman), but eventually he starts to grow on you, providing the only character arc in the film.
But all this good acting is undermined by how scatter-brained the overall plot is. Without a central theme or enough context, you end up with a movie which tries to go in too many directions without reaching any destination. No issues get resolved, no questions are answered, and without spoiling the ending, many viewers will not be happy about its conclusion.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is probably the most divisive movie I've ever seen. I personally didn't like it, but that might be because I'm not from the United States, where backwards rural towns are as common as racists and white supremacists. Not everyone will appreciate it, but if you have a taste for the haplessness of humanity, then you know where those three billboards can be found.