Martin McDonagh On The Brilliant Complexity Of ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

Senior Entertainment Writer
11.07.17

Fox Searchlight


Martin McDonagh, almost shockingly, has only directed three feature-length movies to date. He won an Oscar for his 2004 short film, Six Shooter. Then followed that up with 2008’s In Bruges (which was nominated for an Original Screenplay Oscar) and 2012’s Seven Psychopaths, both starring Colin Farrell. But with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh has elevated his craft even more, creating something that has been described as “Coen brothers-esque” (McDonagh poo-poos this, but doesn’t deny stealing one of their greatest assets, star Frances McDormand) while capturing the essence of small-town America – which is something a lot of American-born filmmakers have a hard time understanding, let alone a director from London. (But speaking as someone who grew up in a small Missouri town, McDonagh nails it.)

In a year of relative uncertainty (at least so far) as far as Oscars go, McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri keeps chugging along as a legitimate contender in multiple categories. And the British director knows that his tale of small-town America hits a precise nerve right now – of course this can’t be planned, but it does appear Three Billboards is benefiting from a little bit of “right time right place.” And also there’s the fact that his star gives one of her best performances to date.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes. Her daughter had been brutally raped and murdered seven months earlier and there have still been no leads in the case. As a form of protest, Mildred rents three billboards outside of town in an attempt to publicly shame the local police department, and especially Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for their lack of answers.

What makes Three Billboards compelling is that the characters are hard to peg. Willoughby is fighting a terminal illness, but we also get the impression this case weighs heavily on him. Mildred knows this, but she has to do something. (Their relationship is, let’s say, “unique.”) Willoughby’s subordinate, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a bad person, but he also may provide the key to solving this crime.

I met McDonagh at hotel café in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. McDonagh is tall, very charming, and seems to be legitimately be enjoying that his movie is being received so well. At least on the surface, he is not one of those directors who makes himself miserable at the thought of his movie going through the awards process. Frankly, he seems to be having a ball.

Was Colin Farrell upset he was left out of this one?

No, no, we’re good that way. I saw him just last month at Killing of a Sacred Deer, actually.

That movie’s something.

Yeah, it’s amazing. I loved it. And, no, we’re always on the same page. There’s something I’m kind of developing with him in mind.

So that collaboration’s not over.

No, no, no, no.

It’s interesting you wrote about rural America. Where did that come from?

I think the story and the characters prompted that decision. I don’t think this story could take place in England or Europe even.

Oh, that’s true.

There’s both a size to Mildred’s character that’s very American and there’s a sweep to the landscape that the story was set in that needed to be American, and rural American, too – like the road and the idea of the billboards in a landscape like that. It’s an American story.

Why Missouri?

Three syllables. I mean, originally, the script was written about eight years ago, so it wasn’t written in reaction to what’s been happening in like Ferguson in the last couple of years…

And Ferguson is not rural, it’s a suburb of St. Louis.

Yeah, sure, but still Missouri, though.

I’m from Missouri originally.

Oh, you are? Oh, okay. I liked St. Louis when I was there last. And Kansas City, is that Missouri?

Most of Kansas City is, yes. And it’s an odd state in that northern Missouri is very different than southern Missouri.

I’m being slightly facetious about the three syllables. That was part of it, but I did want it to be one of the old Southern states, too. It had to have that kind of backdrop of racial focus.

And that’s true, the southern part of Missouri is very Southern.

Exactly, yeah. So in our sort of cinematic mind’s eye, it was like the Ozarks…

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