The story is a war between two people who are both to some degree in the right,and that’s where so much of the tension and drama arises.
A last stand erupts in Martin McDonagh’s trip into small town America in the mesmerising Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as a mother is pushed to the edge by her daughter’s unsolved murder.
After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes (Academy Award® winner Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, commissioning three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police.
When his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated.
It was a story that would lead to Oscar-winner Frances McDormand channeling a modern, female variant of the classic western hero in a showdown-style performance.
The film is the third from Martin McDonagh, the Irish playwright, screenwriter and director known for the hit thriller In Bruges, with its Oscar nominated and BAFTA winning Screenplay, and the crime comedy Seven Psychopaths.
It all begins with Mildred Hayes and the three billboards she rents on Drinkwater Road.
“I decided the buyer of the billboards was an aggrieved mother and from there things almost wrote themselves,” McDonagh recalls. “Mildred was someone strong, determined and raging, yet also broken inside. That was the germination of the story.”
It was a story that would lead to Oscar-winner Frances McDormand channeling a modern, female variant of the classic western hero in a showdown-style performance.
“I really latched onto John Wayne in a big way as my physical idea, because I really had no female physical icons to go off of for Mildred,” she explains. “She is more in the tradition of the Spaghetti Western’s mystery man, who comes walking down the center of the street, guns drawn, and blows everybody away — although I think it’s important that the only weapons Mildred ever uses are her wits.”
“I could see it in her walk and her attitude,” says McDonagh. “I think John Wayne did become a touchstone to a degree for Frances. But I also see Brando and Montgomery Clift in there, too.”
Mildred marks the first time McDonagh has written a female lead for a film, but she is perhaps his most relentless character as well, an aggrieved mother without regret who comes to test the very fabric of her town.
“I mean, to me, it seems like the local police department is too busy goin’ ‘round torturing black folks to be bothered doing anything about solving actual crime, so I kinda thought these here billboards might, y’know, concentrate their minds some.” Mildred Hayes
At the core of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Mildred’s conflict with Ebbing’s Chief of Police. “The story is a war between two people who are both to some degree in the right,” McDonagh notes, “and that’s where so much of the tension and drama arises.”
Those tensions become the exploration for what happens when rage can’t be calmed. As the tension mounts, the film delves into themes of division, anger and moral reckoning.
Asks McDonagh: “Where do you go when you’re in a place of loss and anger that’s dead-ended? What can you do, constructive or destructive, to shake things up and get something done? It’s an interesting idea to explore, that of what happens when there might not be any hope in a situation but you decide you’re going to keep making waves until hope arrives. I think that’s why this feels different from most crime films; there’s the lingering question of ‘what if there is no solution to this crime?’”
Perhaps McDonagh’s greatest challenge was balancing the dark comedy of the story with Mildred’s emotion-driven quest. He trusted that the humor would be there, black and biting, even as he allowed his characters to reel with anguish over loss, unfairness and the resistance to change.
“What’s happened to Mildred’s daughter is so sad and horrific, I felt the most important thing was to keep a rein on the comedy, even on the blackness, and make sure Mildred’s struggle against the hopelessness of the situation maintained itself all the way through, tone wise,” McDonagh says.
The film is, says McDonagh, the most tragic he has written so far yet it is also a search for hope. “The starting place is quite sad, but there’s a lot of comedy in it and hopefully it’s quite moving in parts as well,” he reflects. “I guess that’s the way I see life. I see sadness in certain aspects, but my tendency is always to try to temper that with the bright side, with humor, however black it may be, and with the struggle against hopelessness.”
For producer Graham Broadbent, who partnered with McDonagh on In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, and produced the film with McDonagh and Pete Czernin, the result is a film that “walks a tightrope of comedy and sadness – and is narratively ingenious.”
Broadbent notes that McDonagh’s instincts kept him balanced. “I think it comes from Martin’s days in theatre,” says the producer. “On set it seems in his head he’s already jumped ahead to how people will respond. With Martin, you know the words he’s written and the performances he’s going to get are all going to land with the audience.”
“Jeez, then I guess it’s just his word against mine, huh? Kinda like in all those rape cases you hear about, except in this instance, the chick ain’t losing.” Mildred Hayes
“I wrote Mildred for Frances,” says McDonagh. “There wasn’t any other actress I thought had all the elements that Mildred needed. She had to be very in touch with a kind of working class sensibility as well as a rural sensibility. She also had to be someone who wouldn’t sentimentalize the character. All of Frances’s work is fundamentally truthful. I knew she could play the darkness of Mildred yet also have dexterity with the humor, while staying true to who Mildred is throughout.”
With the character, McDormand explored a tradition long reserved for men: the lone hero who defiantly stands off against a town.
McDormand ran into McDonagh 15 years ago following a performance of his award-winning play “The Pillowman” and after briefly talking about his new film career, she suggested he write a film role for her. “As soon as those words were out of my mouth, I wished I could take them back because you’re not supposed to do that. But then 15 years later he sent me the script,” she says. “I read the script, I loved the script, and I couldn’t believe my great good fortune to be asked to play Mildred.”
“Something I think Martin is really good at is an almost Greek idea of human existence — there are so many epic, significant ideas he allows himself to explore in this story,” says McDormand. “Then, by making his protagonist female rather than male he takes it into the realm of grand tragedy. He also plays with the modern revenge genre, but it’s not a film about female revenge. By looking at how a female character seeks justice the story transcends gender to say something about the human condition.”
McDonagh’s amplified dialogue meshed with her own theatrical instincts. McDormand calls McDonagh’s style “a form of magical realism, here mixed with a kind of Gothic Americana, based on the idea that people in small towns are not prosaic but poetic.”
“Martin and I never shied away from the truth with each other, I would say anything to his face,” she says. “Part of making the film was the combative nature of our conversations. We never went into a scene without me questioning some line or the motivations of the character. We particularly argued a lot about when Mildred wears the bandanna, which to me is a sign of her taking action — I wanted to wear it a lot more than he wanted.”
In addition to seeing Greek tragedy and magical realism in McDonagh’s work, McDormand also saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as a subverted take on the Western. She built Mildred upon the founding icons of the male-dominated genre, in part because she could find few examples of women in such roles. “In retrospect, I also thought of Pam Greer in the 70s, but that’s not even right because Mildred doesn’t use her sexuality as Pam did,” she explains.
However, Mildred is not a gunslinger. She’s a mother in search of justice for her daughter. “As a mother, you live on the edge of disaster, you just do,” she describes. “I didn’t give birth to my son, I met him at 6 months old, but from the minute I held him and smelled him, I knew it was my job to keep him alive. And as a parent, you also come to see how the worry and the anxiety that goes along with protecting someone who you give yourself to in that way, that you surrender to, can become degenerative.”
McDormand made the force of Mildred’s grief central to her performance. “Mildred is really not a hero,” McDormand points out. “She’s a much more complicated person than that. She’s been left by grief in a no man’s land, in a place of no return. One of the things I latched onto as I was thinking about Mildred is that there is no word in most languages for the position she is in. If you lose a husband, you’re a widow; if you lose a parent, you’re an orphan. But there is no word for a parent who has lost a child because it’s just not supposed to happen biologically. It’s something beyond the capacity of language – and that’s where Mildred has been left, so she goes for broke.”
To McDormand, Mildred has no tears to cry at this juncture, which accounts for the depths of her mercilessness with anyone who stands in her way. “I believe that’s why she does what she does: because she can’t find her vulnerability, she can’t access those emotions. It’s much easier for her to throw a Molotov cocktail than to cry,” she observes. “An image I had of Mildred’s was the little Dutch boy with his finger in the hole in the dyke – if Mildred takes her finger away, and lets all the emotions out, she’d be completely immobilized. So her finger is staying there.”
“With Mildred, I think you don’t always understand her behavior, but you never hate her, you don’t vilify her,” McDormand observes.
Though McDormand was constantly questioning the material, she and McDonagh agreed on how to walk the tightrope of the tone. “We were on the same page,” says McDonagh, “in terms of keeping an eye towards never letting the comedy of the piece override the emotional place Mildred is coming from. We both felt Mildred should be free to rage, to be angry, to vent all she is feeling. Frances had a lot of different balls in the air, and she juggled all of them brilliantly.”
Early in her prep, McDormand hit on an idea that soon twined with her performance: to have Mildred wear a singular outfit all through the film – a kind of unadorned, blue-collar regalia she dutifully puts on each day. “Frances came up with Mildred wearing the same jumpsuit every day as a kind of ‘war uniform’ and I thought it was a great cinematic idea,” recalls McDonagh.
“I’m doing everything I can to track him down, Mrs. Hayes. I don’t think those billboards is very fair.” Police Chief Willoughby
When the billboards go up outside Ebbing, Missouri, they appear to take direct aim at one man: Police Chief Bill Willoughby, who has failed to solve the murder of Mildred’s daughter and left her with no solace. But the more one gets to know Chief Willoughby, the more it becomes clear that the man Mildred is going to war with is already fighting a private battle.
Taking the role of the man who is both Mildred’s sworn enemy and her only hope is two-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson.
One of the things Harrelson first latched onto for Willoughby was his ability to take all kinds of pressure without relenting to any of it. “He’s under a lot of heat from Mildred and he’s also not well, so he’s got a lot to bear,” Harrelson elaborates. “But what I find interesting about him is that he’s really not an uptight guy. He’s in the middle of all these cross-hairs but he just keeps going anyway.”
Once the billboards go up, Mildred and Willoughby are in an instant standoff but they are not without understanding for one another. “Woody and I didn’t talk much about the characters – we didn’t have to,” says McDormand. “There’s something really similar about me and Woody. In fact, I think he could have played Mildred and I could have played Willoughby. And I think if there’s anything approaching traditional sexual tension in the film it’s between the two of them – but it’s so much more interesting than that. They could have been friends, they could have been partners and in better circumstances maybe they could have found the answer together.”
Harrelson also related to in Willoughby is his unwavering devotion to his family, come what may. “I related strongly to his need to take care of his kids and wife. And I like that Willoughby really doesn’t dwell on his health problems,” he says. “He’s one of those guys who determines, ‘I’m not going to stop living my life.’ He just refuses to be hamstrung by it.”
As the trouble in Willoughby’s world mounts to a crisis, McDonagh gave Harrelson a lot of freedom to explore the emotional turns. “Martin’s not a heavy handed director,” Harrelson describes. “He’ll come in with light notes — but he sees very clearly and can do a incredible amount with just a small adjustment. He also has a real sense of humor about things. He’s able to poke fun at me if I’m doing something that’s too much in a way that makes me laugh, as opposed to putting me on my heels.”
The biggest draw of all, says Harrelson, is McDonagh’s way with characters who are more than they seem on the surface. “A great thing about Martin’s writing is that he takes you inside characters who seem to be one thing until you realize there is so much more to them, and then you really start to care about them and see something other than what you first thought. In the end, that’s how he creates something that truly stays with you,” Harrelson sums up.
Willoughby’s right hand man, Dixon, is an officer whose potential is self-sabotaged by intolerance and a wildly erratic temper, usurping the chief’s authority and order. In the role is Sam Rockwell, who has brought a long roster of unforgettable characters to life.
Like his cast mates, Rockwell was drawn to McDonagh’s writing. Says Rockwell: “Martin is especially great in this script in dealing with taboos, racial taboos and other taboos, which he brings to the surface in so many compelling ways.”
Rockwell observes that though McDonagh hails from Ireland, he has keen insight into small-town America, perhaps because hard-working towns anywhere have more in common than not. “Martin understands small towns because in Ireland there are all the same kinds of tensions. Working class is working class wherever you go, and he writes so well about that. I feel you could do this story with an Irish accent or a Brooklyn accent and it would work just as well as it does in Missouri.”
Perhaps the local accent is inconsequential, but Dixon is certainly a character unto himself. “Dixon’s kind of a classic,” muses Rockwell. “He’s like the bastard Edmund in King Lear in that he’s a real angry, angry guy — angry at the world and filled with this idea that he’s always been mistreated. He seems at first that he’s a kind of villain in Ebbing, and yet he’s more complicated than that.”
Ultimately, as Dixon’s curiously co-dependent home life is revealed, the source of his psychic angst comes clear. “He still lives with his mom and he’s a bit stunted, unable to just break free and finally become an adult,” Rockwell explains. “He has an extremely dysfunctional relationship with his mom, which makes for quite a bit of trauma and then he takes that out on other people.”
“I think we all can relate a bit to his anger and his sadness,” Rockwell goes on, “and also I think to his hero worship of Chief Willoughby. I think a lot of us have felt that kind of reverence for someone and yearned for their approval.”
Rockwell and Harrelson seemed to find an instant frisson that deepened the tricky bond between Dixon and Willoughby. “Woody’s got a real moral compass and he’s also very laid back, which makes you feel at ease. With great actors like that, there’s often a sense of anarchy and mischief, and Woody brings all that to Willoughby,” says Rockwell. “His approach is never predictable.”
McDonagh and Rockwell agreed that the glaring peril with Dixon would be letting him slip even for a second into caricature. His humanity was the crux. “We both knew Dixon had to be played real, and not for the jokes,” says Rockwell. “Really, playing it too much for the jokes or too much for the pathos were equal dangers. I think in the end people will feel conflicting things about Dixon. I want them to be annoyed, angered and amused by him yet feel for him all at the same time.”