Though it feels like something that could've been ripped from the headlines this week, Martin McDonagh's brutal dramedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is not a true story. The inspiration for the film came to the director almost two decades ago, but the story feels utterly real now. The movie centers on distraught mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who feels the local police are too busy "harassing black people" to solve her daughter's brutal rape and murder, which occurred months before the film's events. So she takes matters into her own hands and buys ad space on three billboards calling sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) out personally. The billboards set off a small-town firestorm of opinions and emotions, with Hayes resolutely refusing to take them down.
A woman's rage and pain at feeling nothing is being done about an assault might seem a little too on-the-nose, coming out amid the slew of sexual harassment and assault claims taking over Hollywood. But the film was written years ago. Speaking to Deadline, McDonagh explained that he met Frances McDormand years before he began making films, and she asked him to write a part for her, "Which I was going to do anyway." He knew he'd need a complicated female lead for the next film he planned, inspired by a road trip.
McDonagh's stories often focus on snarky characters lashing out from feeling powerless, but the British/Irish playwright is better known for stage plays set in his Irish childhood town. He's only recently made the move to movies, starting with 2004's Six Shooter, and most have centered around male leads, like 2008's In Bruges, about two Irish hitmen, or Seven Psychopaths, about a writer juggling murderers and gangsters as he struggles to finish a screenplay. So Three Billboards is a major, and welcome, change.
In a Variety interview, McDonagh revealed that he saw something similar to the billboards that give Three Billboards its title "about 17 years ago when I was traveling through the southern states.” His curiosity piqued, he thought about what kind of person had the fury to put something like that up. "Once I decided it was a woman and a mother, the part of Mildred wrote itself,” McDonagh said. The town where the story takes place, Ebbing, MO, is fictional, but there's a chance the billboards from the film refer to an ongoing incident in the very real Vidor, TX.
In 1991, Kathy Page was found dead in her car along Interstate 10. Framed to look like a traffic accident, police determined she had been strangled, then placed, in her car's driver's seat. Her family strongly suspected husband Steve Page was responsible (he's never been found guilty). James Fulton, Kathy's father, became so frustrated with the police investigation, he began putting signs up along the Interstate demanding justice. He specifically called out Vidor police for their inaction, and claimed that Page was the murderer. Initially using three smaller signs, Fulton has continued updating the billboards over 20 years after his daughter's death. Kathy was even the subject of an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, which briefly notes the earlier billboards. No arrests were ever made for her death.
McDormand's portrayal of her grief-stricken character, inspired by these events, had to be grimly determined, but also someone the audience could care about without veering into maudlin. Speaking with Gold Derby, McDonagh explained, "I knew [McDormand] wouldn’t sentimentalize the character or make her more palatable than she needed to be.”
Hayes is one tough mother, but then again, targeted rage is easier to process than open-ended grief and uncertainty. The sorrow and comedy of Three Billboards is built on her anger, and McDonagh's talent is letting us watch it at a distance.