THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE
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
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
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
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
"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
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
Asks McDonagh: "Where do you go when you're in a place of loss and anger that's
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
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's distinctive way of overlapping tones is something actors gravitate
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
McDonagh's amplified dialogue meshed with her own theatrical instincts.
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,
saw THREE BILLBOARDS as a subverted take on the Western. She built Mildred upon
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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,"
"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
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,
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
JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and Billy Bickle in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS for
"Dixon seems to be everything you would despise in a man," McDonagh
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
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
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
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:
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
America, perhaps because hard-working towns anywhere have more in common than
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
Perhaps the local accent is inconsequential, but Dixon is certainly a character
"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
"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
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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