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Outside Ebbing, Missouri "What's the law on what you can and cannot say on a billboard?" - Mildred Hayes

A last stand erupts in Martin McDonagh's trip into small town America in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, as a mother is pushed to the edge by her daughter's unsolved murder. 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 and a Molotov cocktail."

"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. Joining McDonagh and McDormand in the ensemble at the heart of the film are acclaimed actors Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges and Peter Dinklage.


"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.

McDonagh's distinctive way of overlapping tones is something actors gravitate towards. Observes cast member Lucas Hedges: "Martin's dialogue is both fantastical and realistic at the same time, which is a dream for an actor. He writes emotionally honest text that is almost Shakespearean at times in how elevated it is." Adds Abbie Cornish: "There's something very raw about Martin's tone. It's not smoke and mirrors, but the opposite: it's just truth."

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

Playing Mildred Hayes, who sets the events of THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI in motion, is Frances McDormand. McDormand made her film debut in the Coen Brothers' noir classic BLOOD SIMPLE and has gone on to a career that includes garnering the Triple Crown of Tony, Emmy and Oscar awards.

"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.

"We never discussed any other actress," notes Graham Broadbent. "Frances got the script when Martin was ready to show it, she said yes and that was that. Martin wrote such a specific character in Mildred and then Frances came in and uniquely inhabited her. There are very few people who can run that full gamut of heartbreak and humor. Mildred can be pretty hard-nosed at times, but Frances was so tuned into her humanity that with just a few comic moments, the audience starts to align with her."

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 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."

McDormand was clear on one thing: "It was Joel [Coen, her husband] who said to me, 'a person doesn't become a hard-ass, Mildred was always a hard-ass.' Under the circumstances, she is now fully exploring being a badass, but she would have always had that quality- which I think also explains her domestic situation with her husband Charlie."

Also haunting Mildred are the off-hand remarks she made to her daughter- wishing the worst on her the very day that she was murdered. "How do you live with that?" asks McDormand. "You can't and she obviously can't."

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.

Woody Harrelson, who plays Mildred's targeted foe, Chief Willoughby, observes that one thing that sets McDormand apart is her thorough preparation for a role. "Frances did the most painstaking work to understand Mildred, down to the whole backstory of her family and the daughter that we never really get to know because she's already dead when the story begins," he says. "As an actor, she operates like a private investigator. She comes in, finds everything she can out about her character and her performance really breathes out of that. Frances also has a wicked sense of humor, so she was able to take things that were already funny on the page and make them that much funnier still."

Says Rockwell of McDormand: "Frances is such a fierce actor and her particular mix of tenacity and compassion matches Mildred. She brings that fight-or-die quality. She's a pretty strong-willed person herself and like Mildred, she doesn't take any shit, and that comes across very strongly."

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. "We worked with costume designer Melissa Toth to ensure the jumpsuit wasn't too one note, adding little touches to it here and there. But I liked the idea that Mildred doesn't have time to think about what she's wearing; she's at war."

Adds Toth: "Mildred is such a radical character the way Frances plays her and to her it was important to show that Mildred is on a daily quest that drives her from the moment she gets dressed in the morning. Sometimes she's wearing a bandana, sometimes not and at one point she even wears her gift shop smock over the jumpsuit - but the jumpsuit really was the part of the performance for Frances. Sometimes a costume can liberate an actor allowing them to fully commit to their character."

Toth was especially excited about the way the uniform became one with McDormand's ferocity in the role. "I love that Frances in this role sparks a very complex conversation about what kinds of roles women can and should inhabit," she muses. "There is nothing watered-down about Mildred."


"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.

"Bill is a decent man who tends to see the best in people," comments McDonagh. "In many ways, he's the archetypal good, small-town cop - but we discover early on he's not in the best of health, and now he's facing up to some dark choices and dark realities. Mildred goes against him for all the right reasons, but he has his own good reasons to act the way he does."

Taking the role of the man who is both Mildred's sworn enemy and her only hope is two-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson, seen also this year in the contrasting roles of a colonel fighting for humanity in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES and an eccentric, alcoholic father in THE GLASS CASTLE. McDonagh has been friends with Harrelson for many years and previously cast him as livewire gangster Charlie Costello in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS.

"We see a different side of Woody in this film, definitely different to what he did in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS," McDonagh observes. "This is a more honest, sadder and realistic character. Woody brought to it not only his great humor but a strong sense of integrity and decency. The decency of Woody as a man shines through into Willoughby and I think that's why it works so well."

Adds Broadbent: "Woody so often plays the outlaw or outcast - from NATURAL BORN KILLERS to RAMPART, he's usually on the wrong side of the law or in dark spaces. So what's intriguing with Willoughby is to see Woody playing a police chief with a really good heart, a guy revered and adored by his community."

Harrelson wasn't about to turn down the chance to work with McDonagh again. "I think Martin's one of the great talents," he says. "His writing is so fresh, alive and funny but with such pathos and you just don't find many screenwriters like this. He's able to capture things about human relationships and the human condition yet he's then able to get maximum humor, tension and emotion out of it, too."

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.

Chief Willoughby's wife, Anne, plays a key role in keeping Willoughby centered. Taking the part is Abbie Cornish, who previously worked with both McDonagh and Harrelson in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS. That made their husband-and-wife rapport genuine from day one. "Woody and I are friends, so that made it easier to step straight into a close marriage," notes Cornish. "For me, a lot of inhabiting Anne was about being free in the role. Anne and Willoughby have a marriage that is very evolved, full of love and admiration but they also enjoy taking the piss out of each other, making each other laugh and seducing the other. It's like the youth of their love is still there along with the timeless nature of how far they've come together."

Harrelson moved Cornish by where he took Willoughby, which only made it more natural for her as Anne to face her husband's decline. "As an actor Woody's very pure," she observes. "It was lovely to see him give Willoughby so much life at a stage of this character's life where things are pretty dismal. Fate is staring Willoughby in the face, yet Woody gives him vibrancy. It was also a joy because I never knew what Woody was going to do- and to play husband and wife with someone like that is exciting."


"You do not call an officer of the law a f***ing prick in his own station-house, Mrs. Hayes. Or anywhere, actually." - Officer Dixon

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, including playing Chuck Barris in CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, Nicolas Cage's con artist protege in MATCHSTICK MEN, astronaut Sam Bell in MOON, wrongfully convicted Kenny Waters in Tony Goldwyn's CONVICTION, Jesse James gang member Charley Ford in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and Billy Bickle in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS for McDonagh.

"Dixon seems to be everything you would despise in a man," McDonagh acknowledges, "but there's something in him, and it's partly in the way that Sam plays him, which is childlike and moving despite all his obnoxiousness and horrible faults."

"Dixon may be my favorite character," Harrelson confesses. "Sam has a unique ability to play a guy where you sense there's something not quite right about him - and in fact a lot of what Dixon does is very wrong- yet then he's got this redemptive quality. Sam as Dixon has an incredible innocence about him, so you care about the guy even when he's doing bad things. I think he's a terrific actor and it was great to work with him again."

McDonagh and Rockwell had worked together not only on SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS but also the play A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE, yet this was new territory. "I always think of Sam as my go-to actor for that generation," McDonagh says of Rockwell. "When he goes dark, he really goes dark."

Rockwell's versatility was especially welcome in a character who experiences profound shifts in the course of the film. "Sam was able to offer so much in his ability to riff with Martin," observes Graham Broadbent. "They would try many different options again and again and again. And like Martin's writing, Sam can somehow be funny, tragic and sad all at once."

McDormand loved what Rockwell did with the character. "I think this is the best work Sam has ever done," she says. "There's a real synthesis between Sam and Martin as an actor and director who have worked together repeatedly and are just getting better and better at it."

McDormand continues: "Sam and I come from a place of deep respect for each other and getting to be in scenes together was so delicious. The choices he makes are so completely random and glorious and unpredictable- it's kind of like getting on a great roller coaster but not knowing when the hills and valleys are coming. I think he knew he had a kindred spirit along for the ride in me. We never went past the point of no return, but we were always kind of dangling out there over the edge of everything. And what I also love about Dixon is that he's allowed redemption, Martin allows him redemption, and he never, ever becomes a caricature. He's always something more than that and what saves him is his love for Willoughby - it's the tenderness between two men."

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."

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