Frances McDormand Talks Channeling John Wayne for 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Venice Getty H 2017
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Martin McDonagh directs the film about a grieving mother who buys billboards to send a message to the town’s police chief for failing to find her daughter’s rapist and murderer.

Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri played on Monday at the Venice Film Festival, where the director and cast were treated to a rare standing ovation from the press room — nonstop applause greeted the filmmakers, with others calling “Oscar!” for lead Frances McDormand.

The third feature from the In Bruges director, Three Billboards combines McDonagh’s trademark skill of mixing melancholy with humor, creating complex characters whose motivations are constantly shifting. She plays a grieving mother who buys three billboards that send a not-so-subtle message to the town’s police chief (Woody Harrelson) for failing to find her daughter’s rapist and murderer. Sam Rockwell co-stars as a racist cop, with John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage playing supporting roles.

McDonagh recalled how the idea for the story originated when he was traveling on a bus through America twenty years ago and saw something similar on a billboard. “I thought, who would put something there so raging? Once I decided it was a woman and a mother, it was almost as if the film wrote itself,” he told reporters.

Added McDormand, “Martin’s work isn’t naturalism. It’s kind of heightened magical realism. You’re playing on a different field. You’re not trying to just portray someone who is walking through their day. Everybody is a little bit higher."

McDonagh, who wrote the part for McDormand, praised the actress for having “so much integrity and dexterity with humor and tragedy. Also we talked about the working-class sensibility, which a lot of actors maybe don’t have or can be patronizing about. One of the fundamental points of this story was to be truthful to a working-class woman.”

McDormand, 60, in fact argued with McDonagh about making her character a grandmother. She relented on playing a mother when her husband, Joel Coen, told her, “Shut up and do it.”

When the topic arose about the state of America — which it inevitably has in each Venice press conference — McDormand countered with, “My question to you would be, is there racism in Italy? Is there racism in Europe? Is there racism in Russia? Is there racism on Pluto?”

“I would disagree that America is any more racist or ridiculous than anywhere else,” agreed McDonagh. “It’s going through a tricky patch at the moment. Why we’re hearing about it is there are so many people protesting against it too and that balance has always been true in America. I don’t think this is a picture of a small racist American town at all. It is a picture of a town that has racist elements that Frances’ character has to deal with, amongst a bunch of other characters that have to be dealt with in their own way too: ... dentists, children.”

Rockwell joked that his character arc was Don Knotts as Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show turning into Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: “That’s basically all I did, was copy those two brilliant actors."

When others drew comparisons to McDormand’s role in Fargo as Marge Gunderson, she replied, “I will go to my grave being known as Marge Gunderson. It’ll be on my gravestone if I have one. I don't mind that, because it was a great character, but Mildred is Marge grown up.”

But she did say that this role is unlike any other that audiences have seen in cinema. “When I was looking for iconic characters in cinema that I might model myself after as Mildred, the only ones I could find were male,” said McDormand. “I thought, maybe Pam Grier in Blaxploitation films in ‘70s. But her characters was always led much more with her sexuality. So really the one that I latched onto the most was John Wayne. I used John Wayne’s walk. I can do a good John Wayne.”

Unlike with the current trend in film of characters who remain good or remain evil, McDonagh’s characters go through rich character arcs, leaving the audience hopeful about change. “I guess character-wise it’s just seeing the humanity in everyone and not seeing particularly anyone as the hero or the villain,” said McDonagh on writing the script. “The empathy you have to find is to see the humanity even in Sam’s character that he’s not simply a racist or a hick or a violent man, maybe to explore why those characteristics appeared in the first place, and whether or not they can change.”

He addressed the complicated relationship between McDormand and Harrelson’s characters as again not making a blanket statement on the roles. “One of the things I liked about the script and the film is both of these people are in the right but they’re going to war with each other,” he said. “But we do see in that one scene where the blood hits, is how much they actually care about each other as human beings.”