‘Three Billboards’ writer-director surpasses simple Hollywood arc

The title “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But writer-director Martin McDonagh doesn’t make easily digestible, simple movies. He says he likes ethical complications — and they’re available in spades in “Three Billboards.”

The movie focuses on a coveralls-wearing tough mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who’s mad at Ebbing’s cops because a year has passed since her daughter was raped and killed without any investigatory progress. So she buys three billboards to point out the anniversary of the crime and ask the police chief, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), why there’s been no progress.

She doesn’t mince words, even when there’s blowback for her harsh actions. Willoughby’s assistant, the brutish officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), gets involved and commits firing offenses. But Mildred tells folks, “I mean, to me, it seems like the local police department is too busy goin’ ’round torturing black folks to be bothered doing anything about solving actual crime, so I kinda thought these here billboards might, y’know, concentrate their minds some.”

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McDonagh, who’s probably best known as an Irish playwright and the writer of the movie “In Bruges,” says he got the idea for “Three Billboards” when traveling through the South of the United States.

“I saw something similar on a couple of billboards … and it was a message of rage and pain, calling out the cops,” he says. “I wondered what kind of person it was who put something up like that. And once I decided it was a mother, the character of Mildred came into place and started writing herself.”

McDonagh says he “really wanted to write a strong female lead in a film,” and he wanted to write a role for McDormand, whom he considers to be one of the best actresses of her generation. “I can’t think of anyone who could do what Frances has done in playing Mildred,” he says. And it’s almost a given, at this point in the year, that McDormand will be an Oscar nominee for best actress.

“Frances and I talked a lot about Mildred, and we determined not to give her any soft edges, not to make her motherly, not to let the audience off the hook, in a way,” McDonagh says. “We wanted the audience to admire her bravery and anger and her force of will, but we also wanted to show that those things can have a lot of collateral damage and darkness. Hopefully, we pulled it off.”

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Indeed, Mildred is far from a perfect heroine, which makes the role even more complicated to play. But McDormand pulls it off.

And if you’re wondering why there’s so much collateral damage, look no further than the character of Police Chief Willoughby, who has tried to find clues to the murder but has simply had no luck. Also, he’s well liked in Ebbing, and there’s a lot of sympathy for him because he has terminal cancer.

There’s also the notion that this might simply be a crime that will never be solved, through no fault of Willoughby. “It’s an interesting idea to explore, that of what happens when there might not be any hope in a situation but you decide you’re going to keep making waves until hope arrives,” McDonagh says. “I think that’s why this feels different from most crime films. There’s the lingering question of what if there’s no solution to this crime?”

As Willoughby tells Mildred, “I’m doing everything I can to track him down, Mrs. Hayes. I don’t think those billboards is very fair.”

Mildred, however, is so angry over her loss that she can’t stop fighting. And you begin to wonder whether she has much of a heart. You’ll find out, of course, if you see the movie, which is scheduled to open Nov. 17 in Austin.

Various townsfolk try to get Mildred to take the signs down. And a priest shows up one day to discuss the matter. The priest should have known better than to lecture Mildred. “If you’re half-Irish, there’s no way you’re not going to be sort of anti-clerical,” McDonagh says, “and I knew that priest wasn’t going to leave there intact.”

Initially, the brutish character — the one who seems the easiest to dislike — is officer Dixon, Willoughby’s assistant. He’s basically a thug who directs violence toward the town’s minorities and others, in part because he’s embarrassed that he still lives at home with his mother and has to put up with questions about his manhood.

“Sam’s character is a horrible thug, but the whole point of the story is that we try to see the humanity in all these people,” McDonagh says. “The villain of the piece isn’t all villainous, and the hero isn’t all heroic. There’s something a bit more interesting when it’s not a simple Hollywood story, and I hope that you come away with something that’s a bit more hopeful and human.”

There’s also a lot of humor in “Three Billboards,” although it’s of the dark kind, like that in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor.

In fact, if you look closely, you’ll notice that the advertising company owner, Red (Caleb Landry Jones), who sells the billboard space to Mildred, is reading a copy of O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in one scene.

“She’s a favorite of mine,” McDonagh says, “and I think if you put a book on screen, you should put a good one up there, so that if someone likes the movie, they’ll look into it.”

“Three Billboards” is a story of rage and a broken heart. McDonagh and McDormand nail it.

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