There’s a seeming effortlessness with which Frances McDormand embodies her starring role in writer-director Martin McDonagh’s darkly comedic crime drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But the six-time Golden Globe nominee – who was additionally honored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in 1993 as part of an ensemble cast award for Robert Altman’s Short Cuts – wants to make clear that impression is actually something of an illusion.
“When I was in graduate school I was taken aside and told that I wasn’t naturally talented, and that I was going to have to work really hard. And so, I did,” McDormand shares. “And I mean, Martin might not think this, but I am really good at taking direction – especially good direction, which I got (on this film). But for me, that was pretty much what I went to drama school for three years for – I mean, besides the work, which was really good, but to be told that and somehow to believe that and then be determined for that not to be true. So now I love it when people say, ‘Oh, she’s a natural.’” Here McDormand pauses, her characteristic wide grin giving way to a carefree laugh. “I worked really hard to become a natural!”
As Mildred Hayes, a gruff woman grappling with the aftereffects of an abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) and the attentions of a new romantic suitor (Peter Dinklage) whom she perpetually exasperates, McDormand plays a wide range of emotions in Three Billboards – standoffish, sarcastic, and at times quite vulnerable. But Mildred is most defined and animated by equal parts terrible grief and unquenched rage over the violent, still-unsolved rape and murder seven months prior of her teenage daughter (Kathryn Newton), and it is these intertwined sentiments which McDormand brings to life in such heartrending fashion and an intensity approaching that of Dirty Harry.
McDonagh was inspired to write his unique screenplay after years ago seeing billboards about an unsolved crime while traveling in the southern United States. And he wrote the part of Mildred specifically with McDormand in mind, perhaps not knowing that the 60-year-old actress, the adopted daughter of a nurse and a minister, grew up in a variety of small towns in American states – including Illinois, Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Tennessee – which reflected environments not radically different from the setting of Three Billboards.
“I came from small-town America and a very rooted, not ‘holy roller’ or stifling environment – but very subscribed and conservative,” says McDormand. “And I think I just always knew that wasn’t where I was going to live. So, the minute I left home, I went looking for my tribe, my identity, as a lot of us do. It’s not that I ever felt suppressed or oppressed. I think I was just raised to believe that I was going to accomplish whatever I set out to do.”
With McDormand’s anchoring, transfixing performance in one of the year’s best-reviewed films, and a Golden Globe nomination to boot, consider that belief affirmed.