A Woman's Scorn: Frances McDormand seeks justice in Martin McDonagh's darkly comic 'Three Billboards'

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Without rhyme but with considerable reason, they loom like gigantic Burma-Shave signs lining a lonely road that twists and turns through the Smoky Mountains.

“Raped While Dying,” cries the first billboard, followed feet away by “And Still No Arrests.” Then comes the killer-question punch line, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

It takes Martin McDonagh 11 words to set up his freaky-funny, exuberantly violent antic, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand with withering, Oscar-worthy rage) appears a tad put out by the Krispy Kreme incompetence of the local police, dragging their heels almost a full year after her daughter’s ugly demise, so she advertises her fury and frustration along the highway, writing it large in hopes of shaming authorities into some more sleuthing.

This brazen act snowballs, out of season, into a complicated, unpredictable comedy-drama that is played almost entirely “outside the box,” which is how McDonagh usually thinks. A Tarantino of Irish persuasion with Broadway and London theatre cred, he specializes in telling stories that surprise with blunt bursts of brute force. Events transform his characters into different people from how you first met them.

So far, the 47-year-old writer-director is only three-and-a-third features along into a screen career. He started small with a 27-minute comedy with an impressive body count called Six Shooter. That won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short of 2004. His feature debut four years later, In Bruges, was large rounds of rat-a-tat-tat, which the Golden Globes correctly nominated as a comedy. In another four years, for Seven Psychopaths, he began building a squirrelly, quirky clique (Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Zeljko Ivanek, Christopher Walken, et al.) into his own stock company, which the Boston critics called the best ensemble playing of 2012.

These days, McDonagh’s easy Irish smile is inordinately broad for a man who has created a marketing nightmare for Fox Searchlight with a title like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Hopefully, its innate kinkiness will catch on and prove commercial. 

“It was the most enjoyable, hands-off experience I’ve ever had making a movie,” he beams. “Not for a second did I feel any interference or restraint.” And he knows from his two previous experiences what pressure from American backers feels like.

Now he’s enhanced his hyphenated status an extra notch to include “co-producer,” but, “to be honest, that’s just about protecting the material,” and it seems to have worked: “This is the first time that I’ve felt properly comfortable as a director—that I wasn’t just the writer who was being allowed to direct. I’ve always liked working with the actors, but this time I thought I was quite confident in all aspects of that.”

McDonagh and McDormand are the film’s winning team, but they came close not to coming together at all. He specifically wrote the avenging mom with her in mind, but she felt, at 58, she was too old to get away with playing the mother of a 20-year-old.

Eventually, her husband and the man who directed her to her Fargo Oscar, Joel Coen, told her to shut up and just do the part. It’s her best performance since Fargo.

“It’s not that I’ve never written strong female characters before,” McDonagh notes, pointing specifically in the direction of the formidable, rock-hard biddies who inhabited his first major stage success, The Beauty Queen of Leenane—“but I’ve never written one for the screen. I finally felt I could, and I thought Fran could play the hell out of it. Also, there’s a working-class sensibility to her that really works for the character. Who else is going to do that, really? Who? No one, convincingly.”

Mildred’s stance against the cancer-ridden Chief Willoughby alienates her from most of the community, but the local dentist in that opposing camp really feels her wrath when she treats him to a manicure with his dental drill—a unique ouch straight out of McDonagh’s childhood: “I guess I always wanted to do that to a dentist myself. I’ve always been scared of them, even now. I’ve gotten better, but, when I was a kid, it was horrible for me—the drilling, the sounds, the injections…”

This is the first film McDonagh has done without Colin Farrell, but most of his usual suspects are present and accounted for—Harrelson as the ailing police chief, Rockwell as his slow-witted and short-fused deputy and Ivanek as a marginally brighter officer.

New to McDonagh’s menagerie, getting in their individual licks, are Manchester by the Sea Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son, John Hawkes as her ex, Peter Dinklage as her suitor, Clarke Peters as a late-arriving voice of reason and Caleb Landry Jones as the billboard salesman.

The latter is on the receiving end of the film’s most hilarious and uncharted explosion of violence, when a wildly out-of-control Rockwell charges into his office and flings him out of a two-story window. “That’s all an unbroken, two-minute shot,” McDonagh wants you to know, “up the stairwell, out the window, back down the stairs, all of it in one take. We shot it five times. The fourth and fifth were perfect.”

Rockwell, historically the cool dude on call, misplaces his mojo here, fat-suits up and plays as dumb as a sack of hammers—but still negotiates the steep maturing arc that McDonagh lays out for him. The director also provided him with a strength-sapping mama, played by Sandy Martin, McDonagh’s newest stock-company recruit. (“She had a small scene in Seven Psychopaths that didn’t make the film, but I definitely wanted to work with her again and remembered her for this.”)

McDonagh and several of his key players have been making the film festival rounds, picking up prizes here and publicity there. “I was at Venice, Toronto and San Sebastian with Frances, Woody and Sam. Venice was the most fun, just going around in boats the whole time. They showed the film in Italian with subtitles, of course, but, amazingly, they got the humor and went for Frances’ character especially.

“Toronto went right through the roof. It felt like the perfect opening night of a play. Every laugh was there, every gasp you could hear—and then we won the People’s Choice Award there, which kind of launched us into the award season. When all this awards business is finished, I’ll get down to brass tacks and back to scriptwriting.”

McDonagh is moving on two different tracks now—films and plays—and comfortably jumping from one train to the other. “It’s much more relaxing for me this way because I don’t have this burning desire to make film after film every year.”

His next order of business is installing his Olivier-winning Hangmen off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater. Rehearsals start in December. He’ll attend daily but won’t direct. It previews in January and opens in February. Broadway might follow.

A brand-new McDonagh play will be surfacing in October when previews begin for a 12-week run at London’s Bridge Theatre of A Very, Very, Very Dark Mirror. Oscar winner Jim Broadbent will play Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish author of The Ugly Duckling, The Little Princess and The Princess and the Pea. Directed by Hangmen’s Michael Dunster, it will run through Dec. 29.

Raspy-voiced crooner Tom Waits, who has done his time in one McDonaghville or another, is the surprising inspiration for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, via a song called “Burma-Shave” that he wrote for his 1977 album, Foreign Affairs.

“I’ve never seen Burma-Shave signs,” McDonagh confesses, “but I’ve read about Tom writing the song, and that was what was on my mind when I started the movie.”