Watching Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” you may feel the tough-as-nails role of Mildred Hayes was tailor made for her—and that’s because it was. “The part was written for Frances because I think she’s the best of her generation,” Oscar-nominated writer-director Martin McDonagh says.
Inspired by angry roadside billboards he saw while on a trip through the southern United States, McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) hypothesized the advertisements coming from a woman wronged. “I wondered if it was a very strong woman who was raging and in pain behind what I saw, what kind of character would she be?” he says. “That’s how Mildred came about.”
“Three Billboards” follows Mildred, a mother grieving her daughter’s death a year after she was brutally raped and murdered. Worse still, the local Ebbing police force—namely, Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson)—has yet to make an arrest. In an effort to re-focus attention on the case, Mildred pays Ebbing Advertising Company good money to erect three titular billboards calling out her personal injustice. They read: “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”
McDonagh’s dark comedy comes to life in the aftermath of the billboards’ completion. “Pretty much everything about the story is people’s reaction to Mildred’s anger, drive, and search for justice,” he says.
When McDonagh writes, his characters come first, and the story develops based on who those characters naturally become. In “Three Billboards” those characters take the form of Mildred facing off against the police—which also includes supporting actor contender Sam Rockwell as a racist, absusive, and alcoholic officer who still lives at home with his mother. Although the film is fictional, the actors’ voices inform who they become onscreen.
“It’s useful for me to have some kind of version, almost my version of their voices in my head, listening to the cadence in their speech and their attitude,” McDonagh says. “I didn’t know Frances very well before making the film, but the picture of her I had of a good actress and a particularly strong one behind the scenes and in interviews was as much a presence as her actual voice.” That didn’t apply only to McDormand. “Sam is such a nice, funny guy. The trick was to allow the decency that’s in Sam to bubble through into this mean brute of a character so that he wouldn’t be the simple villain.”
Interestingly, it was that initial question of “Who put up these billboards and what’s her story?” that inspired these characters, but McDonagh didn’t otherwise know where to go from there. He let the characters take him away. “I didn’t plot the movie out before writing it or even during,” he says. “I just set these characters going, try to see what would happen scene to scene, and let the story develop organically.” He stays in writing mode until the script is done, and that’s when he starts to think about the film from the perspective of a director.
As the title of the film suggests, the town that “acts” as the ficitonal Ebbing, Missouri becomes a character all its own. It was essential to get the location right. “You search and search until you find a character-full town that ticks all the boxes you had in your mind’s eye,” McDonagh says of his location search. “I wanted it to be a place that hadn’t changed much since the ’40s or ’50s and won't really change in the next 20, 30, or 40 years. I like films that feel timeless.”
Once the location is decided, he hones in on his actors. “I don’t think the script or the dialogue is a vague blueprint to work from. I’m not a fan of straying away too much from the script,” McDonagh says. “The idea is to have them stick to the script as if it’s a piece of music, but to have them play it in whatever fashion they feel is the most truthful.”
That truth comes from his flexibility in letting actors interpret the characters they play. He meets with each of them one on one before production begins to go through the whole script. “With Frances, we analyzed every scene, and I expressed why I wrote every line, but that doesn’t mean she had to follow my opinions about the character at all,” he reveals. Once he’s moved into the director phase of filmmaking, it’s about actors sticking to his script while digging into their skill set to bring their own perspective into the character they’re bringing to life. “I give actors as much information as possible that I have as a writer and then try to allow them to be as free as possible as a director.” The final product is a timely and timeless snapshot of small town, USA and the change that can happen in the people who live there.
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