Frances McDormand won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Marge Gunderson in Fargo, an—this is the correct usage of this word—iconic performance of uncommon warmth in a typically cold Coen brothers film set in the deep snow of Minnesota.
But she's at her best when she's being a fierce bitch—think Olive Kitteridge, her disgruntled Jane in Friends with Money, even her vocal appearance on The Simpsons as a teacher who believed in gender segregation.
Stubborn, righteous fury is at the centre of her monster turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as Mildred, the mother of a murder victim whose case has gone cold. It's still fresh for her, so she buys a series of billboards on an underused road in Ebbing: "Raped while dying / And still no arrests? / How come, Chief Willoughby?" Willoughby is played with typical bemusement by Woody Harrelson, who is angered by the ads but has compassion for this grieving mom. A problem is his racist deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a functional idiot prone to intense violence. (This being a Martin McDonagh production, there's lots of that, sudden and scary and shocking.)
Ebbing is a small town and everyone knows everyone else's business. Mildred's actions shake the whole place up, having repercussions even she doesn't expect. For a story built on deep darkness Three Billboards is also incredibly funny, often within those black moments, a McDonagh (In Bruges) hallmark. McDormand rips into this rich material, a broken woman fighting for all she believes is right, even when it's not. It's one of the year's best performances, in one of the year's best movies.