When playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh first conceived of his dark comedy “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” in which Frances McDormand plays a woman seeking justice for the rape and murder of her teen daughter, he had no idea the movie would come out in an environment rattled by tales of sexual assault by powerful men. Now, McDormand’s expletive-spewing avenger epitomizes the angry feminist reckoning leading up to its release. “I think it’s a great film to be put out in this climate,” the 47-year-old British-Irish director said over coffee in New York. “But it’s not about just rage and pain. It moves on to a more hopeful, human place.”
The topicality was pure coincidence, but McDonagh will take it. In the weeks following the “Three Billboards” premiere at the Venice International Film Festival — followed by a North American premiere at TIFF, where it picked up the coveted audience award — McDonagh saw reports of countless women speaking out against Harvey Weinstein and so many other sexual predators. The parallels were obvious: McDormand’s character, Mildred, buys a trio of billboards on the outskirts of her rural town to publicly denounce the police chief (Woody Harrelson) for not making any arrests. In the movie, as with recent real life developments, the publicity yields some modicum of progress. “I’m glad that all these pricks have fallen over the last month or so,” McDonagh said. “I hope it continues.”
“Three Billboards” merged with the news cycle shortly after TIFF, when distributor Fox Searchlight pulled the movie from Austin’s Fantastic Fest following allegations that the festival’s venue, the Alamo Drafthouse, covered up complaints of sexual assault within the organization. McDonagh was the one to sign off on the decision. “Fox told me about the background and I said, ‘Well, let’s pull it,’” McDonagh said. “You can’t have a film that deals with this, with such a strong woman as its lead, and still be a part of that bullshit. So it was a very easy decision to make. It sends out a statement.”
McDonagh has a long history with characters reacting against oppressive societal forces. His stage work included the disabled teen with acting ambitions in “The Cripple of Inishman” to the prisoner of a totalitarian society in “The Pillowman.” However, his prior filmmaking efforts were male dominated: In 2006, he won an Academy Award for his short film “Six Shooter,” which stars Brendan Gleeson; for McDonagh’s 2008 feature-length debut “In Bruges,” he paired the actor with Colin Farrell in a devious tale about bumbling hitmen. Then came 2012’s “Seven Psychopaths,” a violent, self-aware comedy in which Farrell plays a frustrated writer who dreams up a deranged scenario that includes Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson and others.
While “Three Billboards” marks a turning point in McDonagh’s gender focus as a filmmaker, he’s quick to point out that his playwriting credits tell a different story. “The early plays had very strong women,” he said, singling out 1996’s “The Beauty Queen of Lenane,” his first credit, which featured two women as its leads, the four prominent women characters in “The Cripple of Innishman,” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” where “the strongest character was a woman.”
So, what happened? McDonagh laughed. “I saw the big bucks and went with that,” he said. “No. It just happened that the first two film scripts I wrote were ‘Bruges’ and ‘Seven Psychopaths,’ and it wasn’t a deliberate choice — but this felt like a deliberate choice, not to do that for a third time.”
He wrote the part with McDormand in mind, even before they met. “Frances’ character is stronger than most male leading parts,” he said. “Because it’s outrageous, and a woman, there’s a joy to it. So it’s never quite the heavy female picture that you might imagine from the plot. There’s something energizing about how tough she is.”
McDonagh speaks as though in awe of his own ability to make a genuine crowdpleaser, and it’s no wonder: Like many McDonagh stories, “Three Billboards” is loaded with bitter, sarcastic loners prone to lashing out rather than talking about their feelings. That’s certainly true of Mildred, who sets her sights not only on Harrelson’s inept police chief but his klutzy underling, played to great comic effect by Sam Rockwell. Yet Mildred’s ability to use her grief to empower her activism endows the movie with an powerful quality that distinguishes it from the aura of despair in his earlier movies.
That could only happen once McDonagh realized his own shortcomings. With “Seven Psychopaths,” he was frustrated that the movie’s clever structure stifled its emotions. “There wasn’t enough room for empathy with the characters,” he said. “It’s too meta, too much like this omniscient director with puppets.” He rewatched that movie alongside “In Bruges” before starting production on his third feature. “With this one, I didn’t want to be above it,” he said. “I wanted to be there with Frances, Sam and Woody — to linger with them when they’re on their own, to feel with them in their eyes.”
With that, he inched toward becoming more filmmaker than playwright, finding a vessel for his prickly dialogue in McDormand’s focused scowl. Like McDonagh, McDormand is most at home in the theater world — and that’s where he saw her, in 2011, performing in the Broadway production of “Good People,” for which she would later win a Tony Award.
The play found her portraying a blue-collar Bostonian, and McDonagh was keen on seeing if she could do it right. “She was playing a working-class character in that play and that was the only question in my mind,” he said. “She had to be a working-class character and it couldn’t be someone who patronizes or sentimentalizes that. If it’s a working-class person, most actors are going to be playing the hick with the accent and stuff. But working-class people have feelings, too, as opposed to that’s not even part of the conversation.”
McDormand hesitated to take the part. She was 58 years old, and had a hard time believing that a lower-class southern woman her age would have a teenage daughter. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m too old,’” she recalled during a TIFF press conference for the movie “I’m really interested in playing my age, I like being my age. I kind of have a political thing about it.”
McDonagh downplayed McDormand’s account. “I don’t think she was resistant,” he said. “We just had a couple of conversations about it. I understood where she was coming from. Her thing was that a person in this socio-economic group would have children at 20 and not at 30. I said, ‘Well, if I’m saying you’re 53, visually there’s not much of a difference.’”
That still meant Mildred started her family late in life. “My point to her was that this character’s not like other people,” he said. “There are a hundred reasons why she might wait until 32 to have a kid. You can figure that out. I don’t do much backstory stuff.” Needless to say, he was relieved when she came around. “It was written for her, and I still don’t know what I would’ve done if she’d said no,” he said.
McDormand has credited her husband, Joel Coen — who co-directed her to a best actress Oscar win 20 years ago for “Fargo” — for talking her into taking the part. With time, she came around to Mildred’s topicality. “She stands out of time in our culture because she’s not based on ageism,” McDormand said at TIFF. “It’s not about her trying not to be her age or carry the mantle of a female of a certain age. She’s just a mother who’s lost her child. That kind of grief is something we all understand. “
Vianney Le Caer/REX/Shutterstock
While McDormand been widely considered a frontrunner for the best-actress Oscar in a competitive year, McDonagh (himself a solid contender for both director and original screenplay) has been doing the heavy lifting on the campaign trail. Now 60, McDormand has put the days of non-stop publicity behind her.
“I respect her reticence about this kind of stuff,” McDonagh said. “You kind of wonder, is it an award for best actress or best Oscar campaigner? She isn’t going to win on the merits of best Oscar campaigner, but if she’s judged on the merits of the acting, I can’t imagine anyone who’s going to beat her at this point.”
McDonagh himself has never been keen on discussing his work, but makes movies so infrequently that he never has been overwhelmed by the promotional trail. “I only make films every four or five years, so it’s kind of fun,” he said. “It’s better to be a part of the conversation than not. Otherwise, I’d just be sitting at home in London twiddling my thumbs.”
That’s nonsense, of course; in December, he goes into rehearsals on the New York production of “Hangmen,” which opens at the Atlantic Theater Company in February (just in time for end of Oscar season). However, McDonagh has so far maintained a leisurely pace as a filmmaker. “As a producer, you usually go through endless drafts,” producer Graham Broadbent said at TIFF. “With Martin, when the phone rings, he’s written a script, and you can just go with it.”
For all three of his features, McDonagh has stuck to a $15 million budgetary ceiling and he sees no reason to go beyond it. “I’m in a happy place where I am,” he said. “Every four years, I can get something made without interference. It means I don’t have to be a part of the whole Hollywood game.”
He’s not kidding. “I would kill myself before doing one of those,” he said, noting that he always retained final cut. “Literally. I’m such an ornery character, anyway. There’s no point in me meeting with a bunch of producers or studios, because I’ll write my own scripts in my own time.”
Still, he has plenty of filmmaking possibilities in the pipeline, including one that would reunite Gleeson and Farrell (“It’s not good enough yet”) and another that would reunite Rockwell and Walken. After “Three Billboards,” however, he began to conceive of a third possibility.
“Because I really leaned into the female aspect of this, I want to make something with a couple of sisters,” he said. “It’ll be intriguing to see how this goes with an older female lead,” he said. “You know financial people — unless it makes money, they aren’t going to do it again. So, fingers crossed.”
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” opens in New York and Los Angeles November 10, with a national expansion to follow.