These days, it’s easy to be angry. Look around you and you’ll see an injustice that will get your blood boiling as you feel helpless because the mechanisms in place to facilitate change have been clogged by special interests invested in preserving the status quo. One film this year channels that anger, and that’s Martin McDongah’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a fiery mix of gallows humor and tragic drama led by a magnificent performance by France McDormand. Recently, I got to sit down and talk with Martin McDonagh about the rage that fuels the film’s lead character and how to find optimism and hope amidst the darkness.
“I saw something similar to what we see on the billboards on a bus trip through the states and it passed me by for a second and stayed in my mind,” the writer-director said of the inspiration for Three Billboards. “The idea of what kind of pain or rage or bravery would cause a person to put of up some kind of signage like that, because it was similarly calling out the cops about a crime. I wanted to write something for a female lead, a strong female lead, for a while; I’d done that in plays but I hadn’t done that in the film’s that I’d made. So once I coupled those two ideas together, once I made that person a mother, it felt like Mildred kind of sprang fully formed onto the page.”
McDonagh wrote the role of Mildred Hayes specifically for Frances McDormand, and the Oscar-winning actress delivers her best performance since Fargo. “Yeah, only choice,” McDonagh said of casting McDormand. “People love her and it’s been 20 years since Fargo. She’s always been good. She says herself she doesn’t get lead roles. Most women don’t get good material. What’s kind of refreshing about both writing this and how people are reacting to it is the joy of having someone so strong, so take no prisoners, so give no shits, just writing it was like, ‘What’s she going to do next? Jesus.’ I think that’s how you feel watching it, too. ‘Shit. There’s a dentist. He’s not going to come out of this well.’ Or the priest. I think the biggest surprise is people loving her so much as an actress and kind of really getting behind the character who you know is not all going to be good.”
Frances McDormand wasn’t the only cast member that McDonagh had in mind when writing Three Billboards. “I wrote this part for Sam [Rockwell] and I wrote the part in Seven Psychopaths for Sam,” McDonagh said of his second collaboration with Rockwell.
“I think I will write for Woody [Harrelson] from now on, because he grabbed me and told me I had to. They’re both a couple of the best actors of their generation, same with Fran,” he continued. “I wrote this for Fran and Sam, and somehow, particularly with Sam’s character, it kind of helps because he’s so good at playing the darker kind of characters. There’s something human and kind of lovable about him as a person through most of his work it allowed me to come up with someone who is a racist and brute and a violent man and still be able to see some kind of goodness deep down. So that helped with the writing and I knew that he wouldn’t need much help convey that in the playing of the film.”
Mildred Hayes takes on a number of people and institutions over the course of her prolonged battle fueled by the rage of the unsolved murder of her daughter. However, McDonagh wants to make it clear that the character isn’t entirely a cipher for his own beliefs.
“It wasn’t that I was commenting on all those people, but she’s going to war with every kind of strand of government or of people who rule us or are above us. So that was part of it. She even says something against the firefighters later on, which is kind of ridiculous. She’s against everybody. There’s something joyful about that,” McDonagh said. “At the same time, I don’t think the tone of the film is anti-, well it probably is anti-priest, but dentist, no, you see that it’s not a great idea to drill a hole in dentists. I don’t think the cops come out of it terribly badly. Woody’s character is a loving, decent man. Sam’s character changes. I think Mildred’s perspective isn’t the film’s perspective. I’m not really against all those institutions but I do think it’s funny to poke holes in them literally and metaphorically.”
But McDonagh does allow his views on the Catholic Church to be expressed by his leading lady. “I’m on her side about that being directed at the Catholic Church, yeah. Generally in terms of gangs or groups, it depends on the specifics of the group and what we’re talking about,” he said. “Yeah, I don’t have much time for Catholic priests or the Church, so they’re going to have to take it on the chin.”
Three Billboards does take on the topic of racism in policing in a manner truly unexpected in modern filmmaking. “I think it’s much more pointed over here,” he said when asked on the topic. “I live in England. We don’t have guns there and the cops don’t have guns there, so whatever issue we have in the police force the result isn’t instant death to the people on the end of it. It’s obviously not as pointed back there. That’s not to say those issues aren’t going on under the surface back there but it’s just not as to the forefront as it is here.”
A line on the topic of racist police officers echoes a similar line in War on Everyone, the film from earlier this year from Martin McDonagh’s brother John Michael McDonagh. “I’m going to say I had it first,” he said with a smile when asked on the similarities between the two lines. “I wrote this eight years ago so I’m going to say he copied me. We never read each other’s scripts. We never really know what’s going on between each other, but still it was me first.” He paused and reflected for a second before uttering, “Now it’s going to look like I did rip him off.”
While he’s an acclaimed playwright, don’t expect to ever seen one of McDonagh’s plays anywhere but the stage. “No, no, no. I don’t believe in that at all,” he said about ever adapting one of his plays for the screen. “I think people do that it’s usually just for money. I think that takes away from the artistry of what a play is supposed to be. As much as I’ve slagged off plays in the past, I think if you do care about them that should be the only place where you can go see them. Because if you have that in mind, you’ll make sure that play is the best possible experience you can have. It shouldn’t be a blueprint for a film later down the line. Just like when someone’s painting a painting, Van Gogh didn’t think, ‘This is really good. I might make a movie about it.’ You should have that attitude towards your art form. So, no, they’ll never get made.”
In the recent comedy show Oh, Hello, John Mulaney and Nick Kroll snuck in a joke about McDonagh’s play The Pillowman. “I was told about that but I didn’t catch it,” he said. “I met Nick like six weeks before he wrote that joke. He seemed like a really funny guy. I gotta watch that.”
What does the future hold for Martin McDonagh aside from the possibility of carrying home Oscar gold? “I wrote a play this year that’ll be on in London next year. A play from a couple years ago will be on in New York in January and February,” he said of his future plans. “And I’m just kind of tinkering around with two or three script ideas. I’ve got one that’s sort of ready to go but I don’t want to follow this anything that’s not in the same sort of ballpark or not as good because I think I kind of did that last time.”