Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri received one of the strongest positive reactions here thus far when it screened this morning at the Venice Film Festival. From Fox Searchlight and Film4, the darkly comic and moving story heads off in unexpected directions led by Frances McDormand’s foul-mouthed antihero, Mildred Hayes. The Fargo Oscar winner today said, “I will go to my grave being known as (Fargo‘s) Marge Gunderson. I don’t mind that, but Mildred is Marge grown up.”

The comment was met with applause inside the SRO press conference room. And the performance immediately kicked off awards chatter as did the others in the film, particularly Sam Rockwell whose racist mama’s boy police officer rides an arc to redemption.

The film begins as Mildred makes a bold move after her daughter’s murder: She posts a trio of outdoor signs with controversial messages along the road that leads into her small southern town. Her target is William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the revered local police chief. When his second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Rockwell), gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement becomes highly charged — even as each character’s humanity shines through. John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish and Caleb Landry Jones co-star.

Reviews have been ecstatic for what could be seen as a modern-day western. McDormand said she channeled John Wayne to get into the role. “I don’t do a lot of research most of the time. But when looking for iconic characters in cinema (for Three Billboards) the only ones I could find were male. I thought maybe Pam Grier in the blaxploitation movies, but she led more with her sexuality. So the one I latched onto was John Wayne. His politics and personal beliefs aside, as an iconic American cinematic figure he has stood the test of time. In The Searchers he’s an extreme racist but by the end of the film you are deeply sympathetic with him. That’s whose footsteps I was walking in.”

McDonagh, the filmmaker behind such pics as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, and a celebrated playwright, wrote the parts for each of the actors. McDormand, he said, “has got so much integrity and dexterity with humor and tragedy and a working-class sensibility. One of the fundamental points of this story was to be true to the working-class woman.” He then added, “Whenever I think of the part of a racist jerk, I think of Sam… Kidding!”

Rockwell says for his role he channeled The Andy Griffith Show’s Barney Fife. “I see it as him turning into Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. That’s all I did, copy those two brilliant actors.” He also watches “a lot of Cops.”

McDonagh elaborated that Rockwell’s character “is not simply a racist or a hick or a violent man… The empathy you have to find is to see the humanity in the character.”

McDormand praised the director. “What Martin does best is melancholy and funny. That kind of is what humanity is about, and from an actors’ point of view, the best you can have is a really great script. We had one. When that happens you never get lost in the melancholy, you just surf it. It was a really satisfying ride.”

During early discussions with McDonagh, McDormand argued over the character, however. The actress was 58 at the time and didn’t think a woman of Mildred’s background would have waited so long to have children (they are teenagers in the movie). “So, I said ‘Make her the grandmother, not the mother.’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t believe a grandmother would fight that hard for a grandchild.’ I said, ‘That’s stupid, you’re a man and not a parent obviously.’ Then my husband said, ‘Shut up and do it.’”