Martin McDonagh can't recall exactly where he was when he first saw the signs. The 47-year-old award-winning playwright and filmmaker thinks it might have been Florida. Maybe it was Georgia. Or possibly Alabama or even Mississippi; the bus he was on hit all of them on its route, so he can't be 100-percent sure. Back in the late Nineties and the mid-aughts, McDonagh always liked to take cars or trains or buses when he had to get from one place to the next in the U.S., if time allowed; having grown up in London, the British-Irish writer was fascinated with America and wanted to get more of a ground's-eye view of the flyover states. And it was during one of those Greyhound rides, he says, that, driving through a rural town down South, he spied the billboards.
"They were in a field ... that I do remember," McDonagh says, taking a Diet Coke from a waiter. He's tucked away in a corner of a boutique Tribeca Hotel, where a gaggle of Hollywood types are performatively discussing potential deals and a famous TV showrunner/stand-up comic is having breakfast with a friend. McDonagh could care less about any of it – he's lost inside that road trip he took a decade or so ago. "And it was two billboards, not three ... the first one kind of said everything we had on all of ours: 'Why wasn't this case solved?' The second one, there was so much writing on it that you couldn't even make out what the case was about. It wasn't like the bus stopped, either; I just happened to look out the window as we drove past them.
"But what stuck with me," he continues, "was the rage. It was so angry." For several years, McDonagh admits, he kept wondering if he'd simply dreamed the whole thing, if the sighting had really happened at all. When he finally decided he wanted to do something with the idea, his first thought was: Who rents out giant signs to chastise the police about not solving a crime? His second was: What if it was a grieving mom?
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh's new film that opened in New York and L.A. this weekend and goes wide throughout November, takes that idea one step further. What if that mother was Mildred Hayes, a flinty, take-no-shit fiftysomething woman – played to the hilt by the flinty, take-no-shit fiftysomething Frances McDormand – who decides to "inspire" the lackadaisical local law-enforcement regarding the investigation of her daughter's rape and murder. How, you ask? She posts a trio of signs asking why, six months later, there are "still no arrests?" – a public shaming that quickly escalates into an act of war between her, the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) and his dim-witted racist deputy (Sam Rockwell).
"It was more about Mildred being at war with the world than Frances being at war with me."
If you know the bulk of McDonagh's work, you know what to expect: a caustic wit,
profanity aplenty, offbeat plot twists, often brutal violence and the
sort of intricate, eloquent, rapid-fire-delivered dialogue that spins heads – imagine Tarantino if he wasn't so preoccupied with proving how many
movies he's seen. But if you only know the writer-director's movies In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012), you might be surprised to see that he's crafted and placed such a strong female character at the center of this particular story. Steel-willed women have anchored his plays (see The Beauty Queen of Leehane and The Cripple of Inishmaan), but Mildred feels like she occupies a singular space in McDonagh's cast of characters. She's mourning, mad as hell and capable of being both maternal and rattlesnake-mean. Mildred would likely take one look at the rogue's gallery in Seven Psychopaths and kick them all right square in the crotch – something she has no compunction doing to, say, teenagers who throw a drink at her car either.
"Yeah, my movies have had a lot of male energy," McDonagh says. "Which may be why some people say the violence in Psychopaths is a little too broad. And by 'some people,' I mean 'me.' I'm allowed to say that now." He laughs. "But this wasn't meant to be a corrective to that – it's really how the story presented itself to me. Once I'd decided the character would be this woman consumed by grief, Mildred really sort of wrote herself.
"And" he adds, "I'd really wanted to write something for Frances."
Mildred was one of two Billboards characters that McDonagh claims he wrote with specific actors in mind when he started outlining the story eight years ago, and the idea was always to convince the Fargo actress to play his cracked, cantankerous heroine. After a gala screening at the Toronto Film Festival in September (where the film would walk away with the fest's Audience Award), McDormand told the crowd about their first meeting after he'd sent her the script: "I was in a production of the 'Scottish Play' [Macbeth] that Martin came to see ... afterward, we were talking about his screenplay, and I said, 'You're no Shakespeare, Martin.' And he said, 'No ... not yet.'" ("Shakespeare never did any films," the director replied, "so I win.") Getting the Oscar-winner to sign on, however, still took a bit of persuading.
"Listen, she loved it straight away, to be honest – no matter what she says about it," McDonagh declares, grinning widely. "It was the age question that gave her pause: Frances was dead set on playing her own age  and she questioned whether a working-class woman in a town like that … she didn't quite buy it, that Mildred wouldn't have kids at 20 instead of 30. I think she suggested making her a grandmother, which, no – so then what happened to the girl's mother? I'm not interested in that story. I'll write you a grandmother part, but it ain't gonna be this one!
"There are a 100 reasons why Mildred would have kids when she was older – she's not your typical woman at all," he continues. "Eventually, we switched the age of her daughter around and still, she wasn't quite there yet. Then Joel [Coen, McDormand's husband] read it and said something like, 'Just do it, Fran. These characters don't come around that often.' When she did sign on, it was, 'Well, I don't want to do rehearsals, especially with the cops' – Woody and Sam's characters. And it's like, no fucking rehearsals?! I come from the theater: The script is sacrosanct and we rehearse. That's what we do!"
This is the point where those who've seen Three Billboards might be tempted to draw a parallel regarding the relationship between Harrelson's harried sheriff and Mildred, and the writer-director and McDormand – a replication of the movie's initial conflict between a decent enough if ego-driven authority figure and a self-assured, my-way-or-the-highway female figure. McDonagh starts to amiably laugh off the comparison, then stops short. "Actually, that's not entirely off the mark," he says. "You know, she was right about the 'no rehearsals' thing: Fran didn't want to get pally with these people because it makes more sense for her character to be a little combative with them. In the end, it's a brilliant decision and makes a lot more sense."
He mentions a scene between Harrelson and McDormand, when the former makes it known that he's dealing with a health issue: "There's a moment of empathy on her part that's completely genuine, where she calls him 'baby' – that was an improv. And it's my favorite scene in the film. It captures what I think the movie really is about: These two people going to war, but they're both sort of in the right, and they both sort of care about each other.
"In the end," he adds, "it was more about Mildred being at war with the world than Frances being at war with me. She should quibble, she should argue about things, she should ask questions – because at the end of the day, that's why you get the performance you get."
"Yeah, Liberty Valance, man!" Sam Rockwell yells over the phone. The subject of John Wayne has come up – McDormand had mentioned in a recent, rare-for-the-actress cover story for the New York Times Magazine that she played Mildred like she was the Duke, striding across the plains in some John Ford western. And the 49-year-old actor not only confirms that the screen cowboy was indeed an inspiration, but that it helped set the tone for him as well.
"When you walked in to the makeup trailer, she had all these photos of Wayne up on her mirror," he says. "I mean, you'd see her leave there to go to the set, and she even had the Duke walk down and everything. So I started putting pictures of Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on my mirror – I wanted to make my guy seem like the exact opposite, a perfect counterpart for her."
Rockwell pauses for a second. "I mean, I also had pictures of Barney Fife and Travis Bickle up on my mirror as well," he notes. "So there you go."
It's easy to focus on McDormand's portrayal of a mother hellbent on taking on all comers, one who's not afraid to brandish a wine bottle as a weapon or hurl Molotov cocktails at buildings. (Indeed, if she does not walk away with an Oscar for her incredible work here, there may be no justice in the world – which, given the film's thematic bent, would just be one extra layer of irony.) But it's Rockwell's Dixon, a racist deputy with a drinking problem, serious mother issues and even more serious anger-management issues, who gets Three Billboards' second major narrative arc, and gives the movie its second major, attention-must-be-paid performance. McDonagh has said that this redneck cop was the other character he wrote with a specific actor in mind for the movie, and once you see where Rockwell takes him, it's easy to see why.
"I started putting pictures of Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on my mirror. I also had pictures of Barney Fife and Travis Bickle ... so there you go."
"He's a complicated guy," he says, then amends his statement. "I mean, Dixon is an asshole. He's a complicated asshole. But he also gets to change a bit, which I think is what makes what Martin is trying to do here so ambitious." Rockwell had played another violent, shoot-first-questions-later McDonagh character onstage, when the playwright's farce A Behanding in Spokane opened on Broadway in 2010; the actor then worked with him on Seven Psychopaths, playing a killer who's arguably the most unhinged of the film's homicidal septet. He compares the writer-director to David Mamet and Harold Pinter; McDonagh says he's actively trying to get a production of The Pillowman, his 2003 Tony-winning drama about totalitarianism, set up with Rockwell playing the lead "either in New York, or London, or both."
Both say that without those previous collaborations, they couldn't have pulled off the balancing act needed to make Dixon, and by extension Three Billboards, work – especially in a crucial scene at the movie's midpoint, in which the lawman, who's grieving for his own loss, goes on a rampage that the filmmaker captures in a single, unbroken shot. "Did he tell you that it was written as one shot in the script?" Rockwell asks. "That's Martin. Everything from my character walking out of the station to throwing the guy out the window to walking back down the stairs, that's how he envisioned it on the page. And it had to be brutal. Otherwise, I think you risk being disrespectful to the victims of his rage. You couldn't soft-peddle it."
"Yeah, that scene," McDonagh sighs when he's asked about the way the sequence shifts Three Billboards into a slightly more intense register. "It had to be mundanely violent, but horrifically so – not hip and clever. The worry was that it'd be just some really cool one-shot thing, but it's actually about the dread of knowing something very, very bad is going to happen and then watching it occur in real time. And it keeps going, which makes it even worse. But it's there for a reason, and that reason is not to do some sort of blood-spurting thing. That's when Dixon starts to go through something similar to Mildred."
Indeed, without giving away where the movie heads after that, it's safe to say that it starts to reveal itself less as a story about righting a wrong and more about reconciliation – one that still blends McDonagh's signature dark humor and sudden swerves into laughs into gasps, yet also taps into an emotional depth that closer to his theater projects than his film work. "You're not the first to say that," McDonagh admits. "I think it's closer to a companion piece to In Bruges than anything else, but what I think you and other people are reacting to is that ... the story starts in a very dark place. You never forget what Frances's character has gone through. There was no need to go down a broad comic or comedic route, because the laughs would come naturally from how the actors read the lines. But that thing that happened to Mildred – it's always there.
"So maybe that's where the gravitas you mention comes in," he continues, before wrapping things up. "But you know, this was written eight years ago, long before what happened in Missouri and in the country at large. We filmed this before the country had a new president. And it happens to be coming out in a moment where the rage that Mildred feels, the rage that Dixon feels – that's the rage that seems to be part of daily life in America now. So I can say it feels good to put something out that ends up in a place of hope without being kind of hippy-dippy everybody-love-each-other Hollywood version of the idea. The notion of humanity and empathy, which is where we leave our characters ... that resonates at this moment in time. I'm happy the film got made. I'm even happier it's coming out right now."