Martin McDonagh on His Venice Award Winner 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

Martin McDonagh - H 2016
David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

The film starts its awards season journey with a best screenwriting prize in Venice.

Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was one of the best reviewed films in Venice this year and already has critics buzzing about it as a top awards-season contender.

McDonagh was honored with the best screenplay prize in Venice, with reviews lauding the playwright for his sharp dialogue and storytelling. On the Lido, the film elicited numerous outbursts of applause after monologues from stars Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.

McDormand plays a grieving mother whose daughter was brutally raped and murdered. She decides to call out the police chief, played by Harrelson, on three giant billboards for failing to find the killer, hoping to drive him into action. Rockwell plays an ever-changing racist cop, and Peter Dinklage also shows up to steal a few scenes.

McDonagh spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on writing McDormand’s unlikely character, keeping control of his story and why he hopes to work with Dinklage again.

What was your writing process for creating such a multilayered female lead character?

When you are writing someone like that, it’s exciting for you because you never know what she is going to do next and you never know how people are going to react to her. And I think that’s true of the film, too. She’s fighting for the right reasons, but could be seemingly dangerous at any point. There is something freeing about writing a woman who is that different and that strong. So I’ll do it again. I can’t imagine anyone else but Frances being able to play that kind of integrity and vulnerability and to have dexterity with the humor, but not to play it for laughs.

Was it difficult to keep a sense of humor while dealing with such heavy topics?

No, it’s kind of always what I do in the plays and films. It’s always that balance. It’s never so funny that it’s not serious, but it’s never so serious that it’s not funny. This time we had to make sure that it didn’t tip over into humor, pure humor or silly humor. We had to keep the tragedy focused all the time. And that was easy, especially with Frances, we just had to keep true to her journey, her story. And these other funny or whatever things can happen around it, but her story specifically had to be dead serious.

But in a slightly earlier edit, there was probably a bit more comedy, probably more Sam Rockwell at the start being a little more silly. That will be on the DVD extra. There was a great drunk scene. They were all great scenes and hard to cut but they tipped it, not into a comedy, but into less of a serious sad story. So the balance is exactly right for me. It never gets so sad that it’s depressing or completely bleak. I hope the humor eases that bitter pill a little bit. But I hope also the humor never takes away from the seriousness of the story itself.

On your first film In Bruges, you said that it was a constant battle with the studio to retain control of the story. What was it like this time around?

This was the easiest experience I’ve ever had. It was with different people, it was with Fox Searchlight. They were always nice, but this time around we, Graham [Broadbent], the producer who produced the last two, said to them: "This is the script. In Bruges is the kind of film you are going to get. This is the script, but we don’t want any shit; we don’t want any notes; we don’t want to hear any advice. Do you want to do it or don’t you?" And I’m equally happy not making movies as making them, and if someone is going to interfere now, I’d rather not make it.

Did you have final cut?

Yeah. But literally, they usually say it’s going to be fine, and then they start up, but this time, nothing. And so it was the happiest experience. And I think the film is the way it is because of that. It is just what I and Frances and Woody thought and felt, and the other producers, too. It’s just us without any other interference. Weirdly, it means if they do have an opinion or a thought in the later stages, you go, "OK, You’ve been nice so, I’ll hear you out."

Did you also write the role specifically for Peter Dinklage?

I’ve been wanting to work with Peter for a long time. We almost did In Bruges together, strangely. He was going to be the dwarf fellow. I’d seen him years and years ago when he was still a stage actor in New York. I saw him in plays, way before Game of Thrones, even before The Station Agent, so I’ve known him for a while and always wanted to work with him. So I wrote this as a little-person part, and I was determined, or really hopeful, that he might get a break in the Game of Thrones schedule to do it. I think he’s lovely in it. He’s so good you almost want him to be in it more. He’s kind of sad and sweet. Maybe there will be a sequel, and it’ll just be him and his dates.

Are you hoping to do a film next or go back to the theater?

Film, but hopefully a little sooner than the last one. Three and a half years is a long time! But yes, I had an ease about it this time. I’m not sure if it was having worked with so many of the same actors before, but definitely it was working with the same DP, Ben Davis who is brilliant, and the same first AD [Peter Kohn] which is very important as well. But I didn’t stress as much about the things I didn’t have to stress about. And I enjoyed it much more than the other two.