Nominee Q&A

Woody Harrelson Reveals His Favorite Scene With 'Three Billboards' Co-Star Frances McDormand

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'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

The actor opens up about the pivotal moment in which their characters go from archenemies to "something totally different" as he describes his fellow Oscar nominee as "incredible, very kind of almost matriarchal."

In Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy, McDormand, 60, plays a mother out for justice for her murdered daughter. The role, which earned her a fifth Oscar nomination (she won in 1997 for Fargo), sees her character, Mildred, go up against the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) and a racist cop (Sam Rockwell) in several spectacular battles of wits and insults. Harrelson spoke with THR about his infamously press-averse sparring partner and how they created one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

“I know Frances pretty well,” says Harrelson. “We’ve been friends for quite a while, and we also worked on [2005’s] North Country together. As a person, she’s incredible, very kind of almost matriarchal — she mothers people, she looks after people. But to work with her is another thing entirely. To actually get into an involved scene is very exciting because I’m such a fan of her as an actor.”

Perhaps their most challenging onscreen battle was one in which Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby, who is dying of cancer, coughs blood onto her face during an argument. “I did come into the scene just with the reverence for her but also knowing the content of the scene is really us squaring off, and then it mutates with that cough into some entirely different relationship,” he recalls. “Which is why it’s such a beautifully devised scene: because you have that one thing going on where we’re each one-upping the other more or less, and then suddenly, through the introduction of something much greater than our grievances with each other — the presence of death, really — it just becomes about something totally different. She becomes a friend in a way. It’s kind of amazing; you never really see a scene like that where two people are squaring off as archenemies in a way, and then — boom — it turns into treating each other with respect and dignity.”

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.