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British-Irish writer director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) first conceived the idea for what became the darkly comic drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri while travelling through the south east corner of the United States, nearly twenty years ago, and seeing billboards about an unsolved crime. McDonagh stated in an interview with Christina Radish of Collider.com, “the rage that put a bunch of billboards like that up was palpable and stayed with me.” He never knew the story behind the boards but they inspired the film’s fictional scenario. “Once I decided, in my head, that it was a mother, everything fell into place.”
McDonagh wrote the part of the grieving mother, Mildred Hayes, with the academy award winning Frances McDormand in mind and although he had to convince her that the character be a mother rather than grandmother (McDormand is now 60), she went on to deliver arguably the most compelling performance of her career (or at least worthy of comparison with her role in Fargo).
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The film begins with the foul mouthed Mildred renting three long abandoned billboards to call attention to the rape and murder of her teenage daughter Angela seven months previously and the seemingly lackadaisical efforts of local law enforcement to solve the case. She cares little that the billboards upset the townspeople, including popular Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), whose name appears on the third board, and officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-witted racist. With most in the town aware that Willoughby has terminal pancreatic cancer, Mildred and her depressed son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) are harassed and threatened, but she stands firm, much to her son’s annoyance.
- Frances McDormand as Mildred
- Woody Harrelson as Willoughby
- Sam Rockwell as Dixon
- Caleb Landry Jones as Red Welby
- Kerry Condon as Pamela
- Darrell Britt-Gibson as Jerome
- Abbie Cornish as Anne
- Lucas Hedges as Robbie
- Željko Ivanek as Desk Sergeant
- John Hawkes as Charlie
- Peter Dinklage as James
- Samara Weaving as Penelope
- Clarke Peters as Abercrombie
Like McDormand, Sam Rockwell also had his part written especially for him. Rockwell, who has mentioned he spent time with Missouri police officers in preparation for his role, plays probably the most controversial character in the piece. Dixon is the one who goes through the biggest transformation and McDonagh has been asked about such a bigoted character being portrayed sympathetically. There’s no doubting that however bad the behaviour of the hapless officer becomes, it will be almost impossible for some viewers to dislike the engaging Rockwell and not long for Dixon to redeem himself. In fact, it becomes one of the main elements that drives the unpredictable narrative and has gone on to bring about a Media backlash against the film (more about that later).
Along with Rockwell, Woody Harrelson has also been nominated for a best supporting Oscar for his role. Harrelson’s Police Chief Willoughby is a family man with two young daughters and is actually sympathetic to Mildred’s situation despite her obnoxious and dangerous behaviour (such as assaulting her dentist with his drill) and initially appearing indifferent to the chief’s terminal cancer.
However good Rockwell and Harrison are, this is still McDormand’s film and she could well be on her way to bagging another Oscar for her unforgettable performance. Thank goodness her acclaimed film maker husband Joel Coen convinced her to take the part regardless of McDonagh’s decision for the character. McDormand told the New York Times Magazine she took inspiration for Mildred from John Wayne, which in turn eventually inspired Sam Rockwell to take inspiration for Dixon from Wayne’s co-star in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin, noting that he wanted to make his character “the exact opposite” of Mildred. (he was also apparently channelling Barney Rubble during his portrayal!)
There’s also significant parts for Peter Drinklage (Game of Thrones), whose character has a thing for Mildred, Caleb Landry Jones as Red, who rents her the billboards (and is a target of Dixon’s hatred), the excellent John Hawkes as Mildred’s abusive ex-husband (who’s now in a relationship with a 19 year old) and Clarke Peters (The Wire).
Some in the media have objected to what they see as a powerful story of a grieving mother being undermined by the attempted redemption of a white racist character. McDonagh has admitted to playing with the audiences allegiances, turning our sympathies from a woman who shows hate due to the lack of justice for her daughter to a man who hates due to ignorance and upbringing. Everyone views art in their own subjective fashion and plenty will reach the end seeing little that’s redeeming and may instead focus on how a woman deals with grief and anger when a crime is unsolved while also examining where hatred and bigotry come from and the violence they can fuel.
While McDonagh was snubbed for Best Director and the Dixon backlash shows no sign of abating, there is a nomination for the Best Picture Oscar and whatever the outcome the film will stand as his most notable production so far. While, it has all the hallmarks of his prior filmography, violence (often brutal), profanity, dark humour, witty and biting dialogue and clever plot twists, it’s a strong female lead character (previously missing from McDonagh’s cinema work) who makes the biggest impression. It’s also important to praise the work of the director, for he has crafted a surprisingly upbeat film from a bleak premise and despite all the fighting, rage and swearing it’s the quiet contemplative and cinematic moments that really make the drama hit home.
The emotive score is by Carter Burwell, who also worked with Martin McDonagh on In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The well used soundtrack also features songs by Joan Baez, Monsters of Folk, Townes Van Zandt, and the Four Tops.