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Three Billboards’ Showcases Actress Frances McDormand

Filmmaker Martin McDonagh created role for her

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Frances McDormand stars as Mildred, a mother who challenges the local sheriff to find her daughter's killer in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

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The two and a half minute trailer for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" was all anyone needed to see to make them realize that Frances McDormand was going to give a performance that needs to be seen.

See for yourself.

'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' Trailer

The trailer, highlighted by McDormand's performance, turned a film with an odd and readily forgettable title into something filmgoers were marking their calendars for in eager anticipation.

The integrity of Frances McDormand

McDormand announced herself as an actress of note in her first film "Blood Simple" in 1984, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. That same year she married Joel Coen who has smartly put her talents to good use in many of his films including "Fargo" for which she won a Best Actress Oscar.

But her husband isn't the only one impressed enough with her talent to create roles specifically designed for her. Filmmaker Martin McDonagh wrote the role of Mildred in "Three Billboards" for McDormand because he was impressed by her integrity as an actress.

"It’s about integrity," McDonagh said. "It’s about making difficult choices, it’s about not sentimentalizing a character or patronizing either her or us. She’s kind of fearless about not making someone lovable."

Companion viewing

"Blood Simple" (1984)

"Fargo" (1996)

"In Bruges" (2008)

An angry mom

The part of Mildred is that of an angry mother who puts up three billboards calling out the local Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for not making any progress in the months-old case of her daughter's rape and murder. The billboards are a highly visible and direct provocation that place Mildred and the local authorities at odds with each other in an escalating war.

At one point Willoghby approaches Mildred and tries to explain that he has done all he can but still has no leads on the killer. Her response, delivered with unblinking intensity is: "If it was me, I’d start up a database. Every male baby that’s born stick him on it and as soon as he’s done something wrong, cross reference it make 100% certain it’s a correct match and then kill him."

Willoughby points out that "there's definitely civil rights laws that prevent that."

But Mildred is long past the point of being reasoned with. She just wants action and progress on the case and she doesn't care who she pisses off in the process.

Female characters as catalysts

Progress for women on screen has nothing to do with seeing better role models. It has to do with having more representation and more female characters that are complex and drive their stories. That second part is key. Because the thing that is really lacking in Hollywood are films where it's female characters that are dictating what the film is about and where the story goes. It's more than just about making an actress the lead, it's about making her the catalyst for the story and not a character that simply reacts to things.

That’s why McDormand’s Mildred in "Three Billboards" is cause for celebration. She’s definitely not a traditional role model but there's little in the film's plot that does not result directly from her. She is the kind of female character that we need to see more of because she is complex, she is not a stereotype and she does not fit into a neat little box. She's a powerful character yet flawed; she's tough yet vulnerable; she's dead serious in her determination to see justice done but she also finds humor and light in the world. She is a type of female character that we don't see very often and McDormand relishes every second she has on screen with Mildred, and so do we.

McDonagh's previous two films ("In Bruges," "Seven Psychopaths") were dominated by men but he noted that his early stage work had focused more on women. So he wanted to write a film that would showcase a female character and that's when he was inspired to write Mildred for McDormand. (Thankfully she accepted the role and it was her husband Joel Coen who insisted she take it even though she had some doubts about being in her fifties and playing Mildred.)

But McDonagh knew that McDormand had to play Mildred.

"Her performance in this, we go with the character, we are behind her in a lot of ways," McDonagh said. "She doesn’t go out of her way to make her more appealing than what’s on the page, almost the opposite to a degree. There are things she does in the movie that are almost indefensible but because her outrage is true and her heart is mostly in the right place, we kind of go with her. And there’s something exciting about a performance like that."

Exciting indeed! It's riveting. We can't take our eyes off the screen and we don't want to blink for fear we'll miss something.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Mildred (Frances McDormand) challenges Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) about the progress or lack of progress in her daughter's murder case in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

'Three Billboards' has more than just McDormand

But to McDonagh's credit, he doesn't just create a film as a showcase for McDormand. He crafts a story that's strong and effective as well. The refreshing aspect of the film is that each of his main characters has a moment when they surprise us. We think we have pegged characters and then they do something unexpected but something that is not out of line with who they are.

McDonagh's other strength is in writing sharp dialogue that manages to be both natural and carefully crafted. As with "In Bruges," there's something that feels heightened in the dialogue, perhaps even a rough poetry in the crisp cadence of the words that so vividly define each character. In both films we simply love to hear his characters talk.

"Three Billboards" comes out of the gate with ferocious energy fueled by the anger of McDormand's Mildred. It would be unfair to think it could maintain that high octane intensity for two hours and the plot does start to ramp down in the second half. But McDonagh ramps down with a purpose as the characters change and maybe even grow a little.

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references) is one of the best films of the year. Some of the issues it raises about how people and society react to crimes against women and how police wield their authority feel very timely right now.

Cinema Junkie Podcast 131 comes out on Thanksgiving Day and features an interview with Martin McDonagh as well as with suit actor Doug Jones who stars in the new Guillermo Del Toro film "The Shape of Water." It's a podcast dedicated to films to be thankful for.

The two and a half minute trailer for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" was all anyone needed to see to make them realize that Frances McDormand was going to give a performance that needs to be seen.

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