With his third film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh mixes black comedy with emotional drama.
22 Dec 2017 - 3:03 PM  UPDATED 22 Dec 2017 - 3:03 PM

When Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri premiered at the Venice Film Festival it was hard not to imagine that it would be a contender in the Oscar race. It really hit a chord. While Frances McDormand is now a best actress favourite for her portrayal of a mother erecting billboards in order to get the local sheriff to investigate her daughter’s murder, writer-director Martin McDonagh cannot be ignored, especially after he won Venice’s best screenplay prize.

Best known for his plays, including Beauty Queen of Leenane, McDonagh is a master at crackling dialogue, a talent he also displayed in his previous two crime movies, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths which both starred Colin Farrell. 

“I wanted to write a strong female lead character because my first two films were quite male-dominated,” the 47 year-old explains. “Most of my early plays had strong female leads but I hadn’t really done that in cinema. In my mind I’m always writing strong female characters but the evidence isn't in the movies I’ve made, so I was determined to rectify that. I got this idea about these painful, angry billboards. I saw something similar on a trip through America and wondered who put them up and what kind of pain it came from. Once I’d decided it was a mother’s pain the story almost wrote itself.” 

McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, probably her best character since Marge Gunderson in Fargo, will not take no for an answer. She argues with the sheriff and a corrupt police officer, played respectively by Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, two of the stars of Seven Psychopaths. The scenario is painful and funny at once, a trait of McDonagh’s work, and it all comes down to his ear for dialogue.

"In my mind I’m always writing strong female characters but the evidence isn't in the movies I’ve made."

“I like dialogue,” he says, “ and I naturally write that way. It’s like copying down a conversation that's happening. It’s like two people are talking in my head and if it’s good you have to keep up with how quickly they’re talking. I don't really think about it any more; it comes easily because of my theatre background. It comes from knowing a character or being open to their idiosyncrasies or darknesses and hopes and dreams. Dialogue shouldn't be about conveying plot or moving the story along. It should be its own raison d’etre. It should be the joy even if it’s dark and peculiar.”

London-born of Irish parents, McDonagh spent his early summers in Country Galway and eventually set his first plays there. He wanted to expand when he came to cinema. While In Bruges was the story of ill-fated Irish hitmen set in Belgium, his last two movies have taken place in the American great outdoors. He says neither story was told from the European point of view.

“I wanted Three Billboards to be as American-feeling as possible. I’m a big fan of American films of the '80s and I wanted it to be part of that ilk. Paris, Texas from 1984 is one of my favourite films and that was made by a German fellow, Wim Wenders.”

Would McDonagh call Three Billboards a western? “No, other people see it that way and I think Frances does more than me. Though I can see those aspects and I wouldn't mind if people do.”

He wrote the lead role specifically for McDormand. “There’s no one else I could imagine could do that part. Fran is not only a great actress, she’s a force to be reckoned with and has great dexterity with humour, but she doesn't overplay it. She doesn't try to make you laugh in this film; she almost throws away humorous lines and makes them funnier. She comes from a working class background like I do and we wanted Mildred to be from that world. We were determined not to be patronising or caricature-ish about her and I think we succeeded.” 

McDonagh insists that his actors stick to his script as much as possible. As in the theatre he likes to rehearse. “I like actors to have as much input in their jobs as possible. The actors are everything in a movie, really. If they have an issue with a line or a way of saying something then I would certainly listen. But I’ve grouped together a bunch of actors I’ve worked with before, like a little stage company almost, and they know the drill.”

Still, poor Abbie Cornish. When McDonagh all but cut her out of Seven Psychopaths he told me he’d find her a bigger role in his next film. He still hasn’t delivered big for the Aussie actress in Three Billboards though at least he allowed her to keep her native accent as Harrelson’s wife.

“Ahhh, yes, yes,” McDonagh says with a guilty chuckle. “I love Abbie, it’s bit by bit. She’ll be the lead soon, ha ha! I’ve got to stop giving her tiny roles--and there was a bit more in this one too. I’ve found lately I write lots of characters, but once I come to the edit it all becomes about the lead story and twice that's meant some of the smaller characters haven’t been so big.”

He should come to Australia to make a film then?

“I know, I should write an Australian film.”

Maybe he could make it with his brother, director John Michael McDonagh (the screenwriter of Gregor Jordan’s 2003 film Ned Kelly with Heath Ledger) who usually collaborates with his Australian producer wife, Elizabeth Eves? 

“No, not with my brother. On my own,” Martin insists, as he is dragged out the door. They do love each other though, just not on the same movie.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  opens in Australia on January 1, 2018