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

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…

When I was a little kid I lived in that area.

How does it look?

Well, I know you filmed in North Carolina…


It was maybe a little too pretty.

Oh, I like pretty anyway, so that’s okay.

The Ozarks can be pretty, but I don’t remember the cities being quite as “quaint,” to put it nicely.

Well, that’s okay, because we did want a kind of quaint, nice, almost affluent sort of little town.

But the tone is there.


And Sam Rockwell’s mother might be the most rural Missouri character I’ve ever seen onscreen.

You said that in the review. I think I must have read your review.

Yeah, I did say that.

And that’s Sandy Martin…

She’s from New York City.

New York City, that’s great. I’ll tell Sandy you thought she nailed it.

How long did it take to learn that area?

Like, I’ve got American voices in my head. I couldn’t say that they’re specifically Missouri voices in my head. I know Sam went down and spoke to cops in the state and kind of recorded how they said a lot of the lines in the film. So he kind of tapped into some kind of accuracy about the dialect. But Fran isn’t from there, but she’s Ohio. And Woody’s Texas. So they’re all sort of the region, to a degree, or they understand the sensibility. And they’re all good actors, too. I mean I traveled around America; I have traveled around America a lot and listened to how people speak generally, or how I think they speak.

This movie’s coming out at a very interesting time…

It’s sort of the perfect time for it to come out, in the sense that it’s a very hopeful film, I think. It starts off from a place of proper rage and anger, which I guess is what a lot of people are feeling right now. But it doesn’t stay in that place. It does kind of step back and tries to look at the humanity behind everyone, even the villains of the piece. Or it kind of tries to show that there are no simple heroes and villains.

Do you think about how these characters may have voted?

That’s funny. I was asked that the other day and it’s interesting that you couldn’t necessarily say, you know?

I know how Dixon voted.

I think I do too. If he voted.

That’s a good point. He probably didn’t vote.

No, I’d say he wouldn’t be a voter necessarily.

He’d just be anti-voting?

I think so, yeah. But I wouldn’t know which way Mildred went, and I think that’s kind of interesting, too. I think it could be interesting that both sides of the political divide could support Mildred.

Because there’s the revenge factor, eye for an eye…

But she doesn’t have a gun, and that’s another thing. But yeah, I think it’s more interesting. All of these gray areas are more interesting than the black or the white or the Republican or Democrat. Also, it’s more about character, and you hope it’s more timeless than that would imply.

I think redemption’s the wrong word when it comes to Dixon, because he is not a good guy…


But by the end…

He’s still not a good guy, necessarily.

But he’s trying to make an attempt to do the right thing, but at the same time, that doesn’t take away what he did…

No, no.

He’s obviously a racist. He’s done these terrible things.

Yeah. And it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

How did you approach Dixon? How far could you take him in one way, knowing an hour later the audience might feel differently about him?

I guess it’s two things, because he says he didn’t do the things that he’s accused of…

He did throw someone out of a window.

He did. Yeah, he definitely did that. But that’s the thing: none of these characters are simple heroes and villains, so there’s never a point where you’re saying he’s the hero or he’s even decent at the end. But you can say that he is trying to change and where does that leave us? And that’s all that the film is kind of doing. It’s not saying that he’s a good guy now or that this erases all the violence or any of that stuff. And I guess you also kind of question how many people who are racist wouldn’t ever call themselves racist, too.

This movie has a lot of complicated characters.

You know, that’s true of most of the characters in this, I think. But then it was also about not letting Mildred be the simple righteous avenging mother – like a lot of what she does isn’t defensible. And that’s sort of the place where all of the characters are. That was the most interesting thing of the mix; it’s not your typical Hollywood fare.

And it fits the mood of everything right now. I know you can’t plan that…

No, but it is great to be pulling something out that doesn’t have all the answers, but does have a lot of the questions. And most of the questions are about stepping back and seeing if there is room for change and if there is room for hope. It’s not saying that there is, but I’m usually kind of cynical a bit, sometimes. I try not to put that into my writing too much, but you could say a lot of it is quite dark and there isn’t – and definitely there is in this. But it’s not simpleminded, hippy-dippy, love one another kind of messages. But it is hopeful, and it’s surprisingly more hopeful than I imagined it.

When I interviewed Woody Harrelson earlier this year, he compared it to a Coen brothers movie and obviously you cast Frances McDormand…

She is mine now, and they’re not getting her back.

But there’s stuff that I’m used to you doing in movies that we didn’t see as much in this one. Was that a conscious effort?

Like what?

Well, if we compare to your last movie, Seven Psychopaths, you just go nuts in certain scenes. Here it felt like you held yourself back.

Yeah, for sure. Well, I think most of that is because of the daughter and what’s happened to her. But that was always a thing — what me and Frances had in our minds is we don’t want to make this a crazy comedy or crazy violent.

And I realize Seven Psychopaths is a very different movie.

No, I know exactly what you’re saying. But that was born out of the plot and the sadness and the tragedy of the story. Seven Psychopaths, it doesn’t start from a place of tragedy or any kind of deep emotion, really. It’s a bit too meta and too much about movies…

Right, and you haven’t directed a lot of movies. We only have two other and your short film to go off of, but this one feels very different and I don’t know if you feel that way.

No, I feel that way. I mean, I see it almost as a sister piece to In Bruges, but I think because of the tragedy of where the story starts from, everything is much more invested. The truth of all these characters is much more fleshed out and much more on the surface. But I think also, because it’s a woman as the center of the story, I think that gives it an awful lot more gravitas.

And that affected your directorial choices?

No, I think it’s just the way she plays it is going to bring you through – it is going to bring you to different places than Colin or Ralph or Brendan. I mean, but Colin’s portrayal in In Bruges is very sensitive and very nuanced and very sad, too. So it’s not like we haven’t been there before. But I think the fact that it’s a mother-daughter relationship really kind of accentuates all of those sadder parts to the story.

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