EXCLUSIVE: While most major studios this weekend would rather save their P&A cash and sidestep a wide-release launch during the slow post-Thanksgiving box office period, the fact of the matter is that exhibitors need product.  And when exhibitors see other titles in limited release doing hand-over-fist business in other cities, they want in.

20th Century Fox

Such is the case with Fox Searchlight’s awards-season drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which grossed a solid $4.4 million off 614 runs last weekend. Originally, Fox Searchlight’s plan was to break the film wide next weekend, but the studio was inundated with calls Monday and decided to go wide instead today in 1,430 theaters. At this point in time, Three Billboards stands to make around the same amount of money if not more this weekend. With a projected running cume of $13.6M through 24 days, Three Billboards is poised to be pacing 68% ahead of Searchlight’s Birdman at the same point in time (that eventual Best Picture Oscar winner ended its domestic run at $42.3M), 11% ahead of Spotlight (another Oscar Best Pictures winner, which finished at $45M), and will easily become director Martin McDonagh’s highest-grossing title stateside eclipsing Seven Psychopaths ($15M). 

The third feature directorial from McDonagh follows Mildred (another piercing, electric turn by Oscar winner Frances McDormand), a divorcee who takes out three billboards on the outskirts of town, protesting her local police department’s inability to solve the rape/murder case of her teenage daughter. Some believe the billboards are in bad taste, especially since Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) suffers from pancreatic cancer. He continually tries to have a come-to-Jesus with Mildred, but his fellow racist officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a loose cannon. His clashes with her lead to greater cataclysms which creates collateral damage for all those involved.

It’s a movie per Fox Searchlight co-presidents Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula that’s playing equally well to audiences in blue and red states. At a time when President Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has created a divide in America, there’s something in Rockwell’s and McDormand’s characters that both types of audiences can take away.

Fox Searchlight

“We saw this with Juno,” says Utley on how that pic crossed over to mainstream crowds, playing both to the left and the right. “The Pro-Life movement thought it was for them since Juno kept the baby, and the Pro-Choice side thought it was for them because of her involvement with Planned Parenthood.” That movie teed up during the month of December and rode an awards-season wave in January 2008, ultimately amassing $143.5M and four Oscar nominations, including best picture, and an original screenplay win for Diablo Cody.

“I think the rage and frustration of Frances McDormand’s character is cathartic for audiences: Maybe they’re dealing with their own feelings about what’s going on in the world. And the film’s resolution is a redemptive one which gives people a sense of hope that things will be better in the future,” Utley says.

Addes Gilula: “It’s playing in mainstream theaters in Middle America. It’s not being ghetto-ized as an art film, rather audiences are responding to how original and unique it is.”

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The pic’s momentum out of the fall festival season — with Toronto Film Festival’s Oscar bellwether audience award prize, Venice’s best screenplay kudo for McDonagh, three Spirit Awards noms (for screenplay, McDormand as lead actress and Rockwell as supporting actor) — plus a 94% Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes has easily propelled sophisticated art house crowds into seats. But Three Billboards is also playing in the hipster houses too, read Alamo Drafthouses.

McDonagh, who won a 2006 Oscar for his best live action short Six Shooter and was nominated again three years later for In Bruges original screenplay, told Deadline he was inspired to write Three Billboards from a set of signs he spotted on a bus trip through the South 20 years ago: “It was something darker than our billboards and I wondered who put them there,” he said. “What kind of pain caused that? And what is the person like who put that stuff up?”

Twentieth Century Fox

Billboards was developed by Film4 and produced by Blueprint Pictures’ Graham Broadbent and Peter Czernin alongside McDonagh; Broadbent has produced all three of McDonagh’s movies. While the filmmaker’s previous two movies were put together through foreign sales, there was a bit of an uphill with Three Billboards and that’s when Fox Searchlight stepped in, co-financing with Film4 and taking all global rights.

The project arrived to Searchlight with McDormand already attached. The label for some time yearned to work with McDonagh, and net production cost was around $12M, which is a low budget inside Searchlight’s wheelhouse. Rockwell, Harrelson and Abbie Cornish had previously worked onscreen with McDonagh on Seven Psychopaths; the director enjoys working with the same company of actors from project-to-project. As Rockwell told us at TIFF, actors jump at McDonagh’s material because “it’s not your usual film script…it’s unusual to have monologues in a film.”

At at time when moviegoers are more fickle than ever when it comes a film’s marketing, it’s not uncommon to hear studio executives attribute a pic’s downturn at the box office to a pic’s title (read, Roman J. Israel , Esq. — who is that and what does it mean?). Searchlight did ponder a truncated title, but in the end, they believed in the originality and uniqueness of the pic’s dramatic sensibility, and let it stand: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. 

Next weekend, the plan is for Searchlight to take Three Billboards wider by another hundred or so locations. They’ll hold as many as they can throughout the holiday season, and depending on the outcome of the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, they’ll be prepared to bring the film back in January.

Watch my video interview with McDonagh and Rockwell below: