It was while traveling across America, 17 or 18 years ago, that Martin McDonagh found the germ of what would become his TIFF Audience Award-winning film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, he told Deadline’s Joe Utichi yesterday at The Contenders London, where he took the stage alongside producer Graham Broadbent. “I saw something similar to what we reveal on the billboards,” he said. “It was a very stark, angry, brutal message, and it made me wonder what kind of person it was that would have the kind of rage and pain necessary to put something like that up out there. Once I decided it was a mother, the story almost wrote itself.”
McDonagh had been conscious, he said, of the fact that, while his work as a playwright had dealt with strong female characters, he had not delivered them to the screen in his first two films, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. “I wanted to redress the balance a little. And as I began writing it, and writing Mildred, it just became more exciting with every page.”
Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, the mother whose daughter has been raped and murdered before the events of Three Billboards. With money she scratches together, Mildred erects the titular billboards to criticize the inaction of the local sheriff, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and his deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell). As Mildred goes to war with the cops, and the quaint (fictional) town of Ebbing, MO, each of the characters is forced to reckon with life’s harsher realities. “To a degree it’s two people who are in the right, going to war with each other,” McDonagh notes. “Sam Rockwell’s character isn’t quite so in the right,” he laughed.
As with the Belgian-set In Bruges – and even Seven Psychopaths, which offered a McDonaghesque twist on Los Angeles – McDonagh again creates a character of his location, and Graham Broadbent provided an insight into the scouting challenge of locating a town that could double for Ebbing and support a film crew. “What’s lovely about being a producer on Martin’s films is that the script arrives complete and brilliant,” Broadbent said. “Martin has actors in mind as he’s writing, and in this case Frances McDormand was there and Sam was there. So there’s another cast to put together, but as you reach out you get to say, ‘Wow, John Hawkes will come in for a couple of days?’ And, ‘Peter Dinklage would really travel across America for three days of holding a ladder?'”
McDormand met McDonagh years before the director had made his first film, and in that moment asked him to write something for her, “Which I was going to do anyway,” he noted. After three features, McDonagh’s rep company of players is slowly expanding. “It’s the third time I’ve worked with Sam,” he said, including a play the pair had done together in New York. “And there are four or five – maybe even six or more – actors who are either in Seven Psychos or In Bruges. Zeljko [Ivanek] has been in all three. I like the whole idea of rep companies, and Preston Sturges and Sam Peckinpah always used to do that.”
The actors, he said, were a “no-brainer” to write for, “Because Sam, Frances and Woody are three of the most truthful actors working in American movies today. This is a film that starts from quite a dark, tragic place, and the comedy balances the darkness, but we wanted to keep the germ of the idea as truthful as possible. If you get actors like these three, you never have to worry that they’re going to try and make it funny-funny. They’re going to go for the truth and honesty first, and let someone else take care of the laughs.”