'Three Billboards' director Martin McDonagh on Tarantino comparisons, telling off priests, and making an American hero of Frances McDormand

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Frances McDormand in <em>Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri</em> (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures c/o Everett Collection)
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures c/o Everett Collection)

“This one felt like the least violent of all my things,” director Martin McDonagh says of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, his unpredictable, uproarious, emotional gut-punch of a film. By “all my things,” McDonagh is referring to his two previous feature films, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, as well as his body of work as a playwright (he’s been nominated for four Tony Awards since 1998). In both mediums, his dramas are characterized by their profane wit and gasp-inducing violence, resulting in inevitable comparisons to Quentin Tarantino (which McDonagh does not relish, for reasons he explains below).

Three Billboards, about a woman (Frances McDormand) who goes to war with her small-town police department in hopes of finding her daughter’s killer, is as viscerally brutal as anything the British filmmaker has written. At the same time, the film is sharply critical of violence, with a timely message about how rage and hopelessness cause people to spin away into their own orbits at the exact moment they should be coming together. “I used to be an anarchist, I used to be all punk rock, but now it’s, Let’s love each other!’” McDonagh half-joked to Yahoo Entertainment.

Though he began working on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri nearly a decade ago (long before a different Missouri town became shorthand for police brutality), McDonagh’s film speaks more precisely and urgently to the present American moment than any other awards-season contender thus far. Days before the film opened, McDonagh sat down with Yahoo Entertainment for a deep-dive interview about “un-P.C.” language, telling off Catholic priests, arguing with McDormand, his dissatisfaction with Seven Psychopaths, and why he’ll never make a sequel to anything. [Minor spoilers.]

Yahoo Movies: This film is about cycles of violence and anger, and it feels like a specifically American story. Was that part of your intention?
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, I did feel like it was a very American story from the outset, and I don’t think it could have been set anywhere else. But I think that’s just as much about Frances’ character, Mildred. There’s something kind of big and grand and American, and almost Western-like about her, the size of her, cinematically.

It was written about eight years ago, so it wasn’t written as either a response to Missouri in the last two years or Trump’s America or any of that kind of stuff. But it does feel like it’s a good time to put a film like this out, because it is sort of dealing with those issues, but there’s a lot of heart and hope to it. So as much as it starts from a place of rage and that seems to be going on all around the country right now there’s something more hopeful and humane about it by the end.

Many Americans right now feel this sense of, “Everything has gone horribly wrong, the worst things that can happen are happening, and it’s all hopeless.” Your characters in this film are also in situations where they feel hopeless.
Yeah, but I don’t think the film is. I mean, they start off in a place of anger and despair and rage, but I don’t think we stay there. In fact, through almost the anger, things change, because of her actions at the start of the film, things somehow progress.

And as an outsider, looking at America: There is a lot of hope. There’s so much protest and anger, and I think that’s a good thing. People aren’t accepting everything from the top down, and there’s a lot of hope to be found in that, I think. I wouldn’t say it’s a hopeless situation.

It feels that way sometimes.
But then you can’t forget, it’s not very long ago that a black guy was elected twice, you know? The country hasn’t changed that much. So, things do seem a bit polarized, but the film is about stepping back a little bit and trying to see the humanity behind everyone. I’ve become like a big hippie in my old age. [laughs] I used to be an anarchist. I used to be all punk rock, but now it’s, “Let’s love each other!”

The movie doesn’t shortcut its way through those difficult themes.
Exactly. It’s not like simple, “Isn’t everyone good?” Because Sam’s character [corrupt police officer Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell] is a s**t at the start, and he changes, but he’s still probably a s**t deep down. But there is room for maneuver. And [Mildred] isn’t a simple hero, too. That’s what the film is trying to explore, the gray areas of us all. It’s not as simple as that. But there’s some hope to be found in that fact, that we’ve all got our issues, and we’re none of us perfect, but we’re all sort of worthy of a chance.

Martin McDonagh attends the premiere of <em>Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri</em> premiere at the 74th Venice International Film Festival in September. (Photo: DPA/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Martin McDonagh attends the premiere of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri premiere at the 74th Venice International Film Festival in September. (Photo: DPA/Courtesy Everett Collection)

How do you figure out how to use violence in your stories?
I think each one it’s a different kettle of fish, really. This one felt like the least violent of all my things, because there’s only one gunshot in the whole film. We don’t see many guns, to be honest. And she is violent with words, and with children outside schools. [laughs] But apart from that, she’s not oh, but then there’s the dentist thing.

Somebody gets pushed through a window, someone gets set on fire…
That’s true. Actually it’s a pretty violent film when you look at it that way. But the sensibility is anti all that. Seven Psychopaths was too glib, even though it was supposed to be a meta anti-violent film; using the violence so much in it means it’s kind of not. Anyway, I wasn’t satisfied with it. But everything I’ve done is, at its heart, sort of anti-violence and questioning of it. At the same time I know that violence in stories is exciting, and certainly in the plays, there’s something kind of dangerous and interesting plotwise about using it. But I hope it’s never used for thrills or for effect. My sensibility is always anti it, anyway, and I hope that mostly comes through when we get it right. Like this certainly, I think, I feel like we get it right, and even like the whole sort of end sequence is about questioning all of those motivations for revenge and violence.

This is why I get annoyed when people compare you to Quentin Tarantino.
Yeaaah. Yeah. Especially yeah. I mean I like a lot of his early stuff, but I think there’s always been more of a questioning of it in my stuff.

I would love to talk to you about a couple specific moments and scenes. One is the scene where Mildred is talking to her bunny slippers.
Funny, that was kind of the first image in the first thought of her character. Everything stemmed from that. For some reason, that was the first half-page I noted. And I think it’s because, the incongruity of an image like that, of someone just getting up in despair, and just saying, you know, with rage, “I’m gonna crucify the motherf***ers” but saying it to her cute bunny slippers, and that even striking her as the silliest thing in the world, and her having to laugh at her own rage. It’s kind of what the film’s all about. It’s really weird.

It feels really true to the absurd places that grief takes your brain.
Yeah, exactly. I really like that scene. Because I even like the wallpaper in that scene it’s all butterflies. She’s this woman in complete depression, and it’s like, butterflies and bunny slippers. [laughs] That’s me. It’s more about butterflies and bunny slippers than it is about violence and rage.

How about the scene where Mildred tells off the priest?
Oh, yeah. That should happen more often in movies, I think! I didn’t plot the film out beforehand, so the plot was just, people reacting to her, and her reacting to people. I didn’t know that that priest was going to turn up when he did. But I knew when he was in there, he wasn’t going to get out, metaphorically, alive. And naturally, your own opinions about that kind of subject bobble through. But the takedown of it was quite interesting. It’s like a page-long speech, basically, and when it starts off, he and we are wondering, Where is she going with this? Crips and Bloods and gangs in the ’80s?But that’s almost a stage-speech kind of script. It’s like, Pull you in, pull you in, pull you in, and smack, smack, smack, smack, now f**k off!” [laughs] But I mean, it’s gotten a round of applause most screenings I’ve seen with, you know, real people coming to see it. So. We should show it for the church and see what their response is. [laughs]

Mildred’s murdered daughter [Kathryn Newton] is seen only once, in a flashback. What was behind that decision?
You see a lot of these crime films, and CSI and stuff like that, and the victims are always just victims, they’re not actually human beings, they’re not actually women. So I wanted to show that this isn’t just a nameless corpse. This is a person with music tastes and anger and who’s just an actual person that we’re talking about, not a statistic and not a plot device. So you just want to touch on her, and know what the memories of her were left, and then move on without staying in that place.

Was that a tough role to cast?
Not too bad. It needed someone to be equally as feisty as Frances herself. Kathryn Newton, whose star is starting to shine now, was perfect and nailed it. Sometimes when you’re that young, you just have fearlessness. So she is completely happy to hold her own with Frances in that scene.

Frances McDormand, Peter Dinklage, and director Martin McDonagh on set (Photo: Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight Pictures c/o Everett Collection)
Frances McDormand, Peter Dinklage, and director Martin McDonagh on set (Photo: Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight Pictures c/o Everett Collection)

Peter Dinklage plays a character in the film who’s a little out of step with the others. Tell me how you see his role in the film.
Well, Peter I’d wanted to work with for many years. I’ve known him for like 15 years, from New York theater, actually, before The Station Agent, even. And whenever I’m writing a film, I try to think not just, “Could this character be a man or a woman, or black or white?” I also go to, “Little person or not little person?” And sometimes that kind of prompts a different way of looking at a character. We almost did In Bruges together and that didn’t quite work out, but I wanted to write something for him, so I wrote this one for him. But it just gives the character a whole different dimension, that people in small towns don’t treat [little people] with as much respect as they ought to. That prejudice isn’t something that’s really explored too much. Certainly, he’s probably the nicest character in the film, but he’s equally aggrieved that he’s treated as a lesser person because of his height. But he’ll be in the sequel. [laughs] He is the sequel.

I remember watching In Bruges and wondering if Peter Dinklage had auditioned. The actor who’s in that role is great though.
The sad thing about the guy who’s in In Bruges, Jordan Prentice: He would always lose every single role to Peter. And the one role he gets, I read four or five reviews that all said “Peter Dinklage is amazing in this one.” Like how prejudiced, or just lacking in … You just read the thing that’s in front of you!

He could be Peter Dinklage’s brother in the sequel. It could be a True West thing.
Nice! That would be a great True West. That would be a good idea. Hang on, does that make it your idea or my idea? If it makes millions now, are you gonna sue?

I think you need to give me an executive producer credit. I don’t want the money, I just want the glory.
OK, sucker. [laughs] No, always get something contractual. Anyone can be a producer.

The word “midget” did make me flinch.
I mean, I wouldn’t use that word. But people in a small town like that would. Peter doesn’t use it in the film about himself. But again, in a story, even though I would want to say, “That’s not the word to use,” people wouldn’t be doing that. Or he wouldn’t be calling up every person who uses that word about him, in a small-town situation, because that’s not what happens. So it wouldn’t be true for him to be standing up for his rights in every scene where he’s called a midget.

Did you talk to Peter about that?
We did discuss the fact that he would never say it. But he didn’t have an issue with other people saying it, because it’s true. And there’s always politically incorrect terms in my stuff, because there are in real life. I mean, I’m a pretty PC person, but I don’t think your films should be, because I don’t think it represents the truth.

In that vein, there’s a lot of talk about Dixon torturing black people, but we never actually see it. Tell me about that decision.
Well, he also says he didn’t do it though we know he did something, to be honest, but the way it’s used in the film needs to be unspecific. You need to kind of suspect him but not be sure one way or the other if it’s true. So that’s why it couldn’t be shown. Also Woody’s character [the police chief, played by Woody Harrelson] says, “There’s no evidence to support that.” So we should be left feeling, “Hmm, he seems like a s**t and he probably is a s**t, but did he go that far?And that should be part of the gray area, I guess.

You joked about a sequel. Would you ever actually make a sequel to a film like this?
If I ever do a sequel, kill me.

When you’re done with characters you’re done with them?
Yeah. There are very few, apart from the Godfathers maybe, where the second installment added anything to it. No, I like a story being told in one sitting. You can fill in the blanks yourself, but I shouldn’t have to.

So you won’t be doing any superhero movies?
Never, ever, ever. That’s the other reason why you can kill me. If I ever do, you can set fire to my house. You can Molotov cocktail me.

You know, I’ve had other directors and actors tell me, “I’m not interested in superheroes,” and then they get a look at that paycheck…
No, not me. Promise. We can shake hands on that. [laughs]

I just wanted to talk about Frances McDormand for a minute. To hear her talk about this movie, you two just argued the entire time.
We didn’t really, but I’ve been kind of playing up that as well. I think she likes the idea of her being this ornery, tough yeah. [laughs] We didn’t really fight that much, but it was like 5 percent more than I’m used to. So that seemed like a lot to me. But no, we were almost exactly on the same page, but she would sometimes want to cut dialogue. And coming from theater, I’m very precious about the script. We can always cut it in the edit, I always felt. So those were only tiny little things we’d not go head to head about, but have little conversations about.

Did you have any disagreements about Mildred that ended up informing the character?
No, no, and that’s the thing we were 100 percent on the same page. In fact, we could go to war together. It never really came to it, because the financiers were very much on the same page, but even about the costume not changing, and the look of her. We were instantly like that. Because you do get a few notes of, “It’s a bit one-note.” But it’s like, she’s going to war. She needs a uniform. It’s more iconic, I think, for her to be in one suit the whole time. And with the bandana, the image is pretty striking and pretty tough. Her character and her performance are so strong. I think it’s a good one for 12-year-old girls to see from here on in. Like, that’s the way you enter a bar, or talk to an ad man, or talk to a cop. [laughs]

It’s good to see a hero who’s an older woman who wears no makeup and takes no s—t.
Exactly. We need a few more of those.

Watch a trailer for ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

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