McDormand and Rockwell face off in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There are certain actor-on-actor match-ups and team-ups and face-offs that gain a kind of mythic grandeur from the sheer fact of the performers not having intersected earlier. I’m thinking of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro facing off, if only for a few minutes, in Heat; Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie supposedly smoldering in Mr. and Mrs. Smith; Eddie Murphy riffing opposite Steve Martin in Bowfinger; John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in, well, you know. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell don’t immediately come to mind as a similarly titanic pair. They’re both terrific actors, their filmographies packed with memorable performances, but Rockwell works so often, and McDormand with such relative choosiness, that at first their pairing primarily elicits a vague familiarity – wait, was Rockwell ever in a Coens movie with McDormand? Was McDormand ever in a Marvel movie with Rockwell? Is Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri really their first one together?

It is, and even the movie itself doesn’t immediately regard the two of them as on a collision course. McDormand’s Mildred, a grieving mother, instead has Ebbing’s Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in her sights for failing to solve the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, nine months after the crime was committed. Mildred, a brusquely profane woman, rents three billboards in a fit of pique, publicly demanding to know why no arrests have been made, and attracting some local news attention. Rockwell plays Dixon, one of Willoughby’s more fiercely protective and less gifted men on the police force.

McDonagh doesn’t really do traditional face-offs that provide actors with traditional conflicting fireworks. The playwright-turned-filmmaker (In Bruges; Seven Psychopaths) forces characters into tough corners, but deliberately defuses expectations when they confront each other. Willoughby, for example, is upset by the billboards, but not outraged. He understands Mildred’s pain, at least to some degree, and she recognizes that he’s more or less doing his best, under the circumstances (the details of which become clearer as the story progresses). But she still presses him. Gotta press someone, gotta press somewhere. That doesn’t sit right with Dixon, who moves to the fore as the movie follows the fall-out and assorted chain reactions from Mildred’s campaign.

And that’s where Rockwell and McDormand, if not exactly face off, certainly perform an unusual duet. In general, their acting styles aren’t particularly in sync. McDormand isn’t a showy actor, and imbues tiny gestures with meaning – letting the tiny, almost offhand taps of Mildred’s thumb on the steering wheel of her car show her thought process more than a furrowed brow or thoughtful facial expression. Part of the delight (and there are moments of delight in this often-bleak movie) of McDormand speaking McDonagh’s sharp, near-musical dialogue is the skill with which she deploys the crucial profanities, never over-inflecting them, as if her rage has settled into extended pre-storm bouts of calm. The moments where she lets her guard down are all the more devastating.

Historically, Rockwell has been more of a showboater – a glorious, ferret-y one. His eccentricities translate from smaller pictures like Snow Angels or Moon to bigger ones like Charlie’s Angels or Iron Man 2; he dances through them, often literally. I saw him do a McDonagh play on Broadway, and he was ready to out-weird Christopher Walken, nearly succeeding. He dances in Three Billboards, too, at one point obliviously jamming out with his headphones, but Dixon is an uglier case study, a cop with accusations of racism in his past, living with (and vaguely, uncomfortably guided by) his racist mother, drinking too much, and fucking up. At one point, he throws an innocent man out of a window, nearly killing him, depicted in an unbroken shot during which he morphs from clumsily determined to frighteningly unstoppable. At another, he’s part of a large-scale cosmic sight gag, having an epiphany while the world around him burns.

McDormand and Rockwell could be appearing in a couple of different movies apiece here, but the jagged gaps between McDonagh’s dark comedy and serious sense of empathy creates just the right landscape for them. The writer-director’s other movies toy with comedy and drama, but Three Billboards is probably his least overtly comedic yet. There are trailer-ready hilarious moments, like a gruesome revenge scene at a dentist (and a numbed-mouth aftermath), or Mildred running roughshod over some barely-mouthy teenagers. But the movie stings, too, and not just with nasty laughs. Harrelson plays things a little more evenly, as the tough-to-rile voice of mostly-reason, but McDormand and Rockwell each have scenes that register, variously, as tragic and shock-comic (if anything, McDormand might have more laugh lines). As they learn more about each other, and McDonagh fills in the occasional bit of backstory – there’s a flashback to Mildred’s daughter, pre-murder, that’s both funny and wrenching – the movie keeps tilting and shifting the ground beneath them. Somehow, the stars never lose their balance. They’re both performing extraordinary feats, taking extraordinary risks.

McDonagh is taking a risk, too, one not all of his fans will love. He may be particularly vilified for eventually showing sympathy toward Dixon, a noxious cop – and for suggesting that a violent, racist idiot might be, on some level, a redeemable human being. Fair enough if you’re not in the mood to ponder this in a story where the five or six most important characters are all white. But Three Billboards feels, in a lot of ways, out of time – not regressive or outdated, but less of-the-moment than some might prefer, given the subject matter (until I saw some smartphones, I wasn’t all together certain it was taking place in the present day). It’s not exactly a fable or a parable, but it sidesteps away from Issue Movie designation, and then keeps on side-stepping. It’s both likable in its scrappy comedy and unwinnable in its moral complexities, and for McDonagh these qualities are inextricable.

Through his commitment to man’s inhumanity (there’s domestic violence here that’s barely a subplot), McDonagh’s work also indirectly raises a provocative question: How much good is a story about forgiveness where everyone seems forgivable more or less from the jump? (Ask any number of mopey indies that treat grief like a mundane task, rather than a living, breathing, sometimes fucking angry thing.) And how sure should a movie make you that its characters are going to do the right thing? That’s the tentative, possibly redemptive and possibly ruinous common ground that McDormand and Rockwell wind up sharing: In character, they don’t seem especially sure themselves.