NEW YORK — In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” or anywhere else, Frances McDormand means business.
In Martin McDonagh’s new film, McDormand plays a woman, Mildred Hayes, consumed with rage because the rape and murder of her teenage daughter has gone unsolved after a year. She embarks on a blazing, relentless campaign to hold the town’s sheriff (Woody Harrelson) accountable, erecting billboards that taunt him and unleashing a foul-mouthed fury on the sleepy Southern town.
In a way, it’s impossible to separate Mildred from the equally uncompromising McDormand. Mildred is a matter-of-fact, non-nonsense force because McDormand is one, too. Take, for example, how McDormand imagines Mildred might react to the Harvey Weinstein revelations.
“She would have absolutely no time for it,” said McDormand in a recent interview. “She wouldn’t waste her breath.”
But would McDormand? Seconds of silence follow.
“Was that a good long pause?” she finally responds.
As a woman out for justice, Mildred has blazed onto movie screens like the heroine we, at this moment especially, need. The darkly comic and violent spirit of outrage that animates “Three Billboards” has — perhaps more than any other film this fall — tapped a raw nerve with audiences. The film, which expands in theaters this week after opening in New York and Los Angeles last weekend, won a screenplay award in Venice and took the audience award in Toronto.
“It’s great to be putting out a film with such a strong woman lead character in such a bravura performance at this time, not just politically but Hollywood-wise,” says McDonagh, referencing the unfolding sexual harassment scandals. “Even just two months ago before anyone had seen it, I wasn’t sure how it was going to be taken. We thought it was a good film with great performances but we worried that the darkness in the story might not allow people to laugh, or let people in.
“It’s mostly because of Frances, to be honest. They just latch on to her for dear life and follow every crazy thing she does.”
The performance has made McDormand the early front-runner for the best-actress Oscar, and marks a clear career high point for the uncommonly self-assured veteran of “Fargo,” ”Wonder Boys,” ”Burn After Reading” and “Olive Kitteridge.” Wrote the New Yorker: “She seems to state Mildred, presenting her as a given fact, like someone unrolling a map.”
McDonagh, the Irish playwright and filmmaker (“In Bruges), wrote the part specifically for McDormand after the two met several years ago at a party following McDonagh’s play “The Pillowman.” ”There was no plan B,” he says. Yet McDonagh is still taken by how much McDormand’s own strength of character imbues Mildred’s.
“It’s both the on-screen attitude and the off-screen attitude,” says McDonagh. “There’s a sense of her as a woman not taking any s—, not towing the Hollywood line, and not doing what’s expected of her.”
Sam Rockwell, who co-stars as the dimwitted and racist but also tragic police officer Dixon agrees. “There’s a relentless kind of integrity,” says Rockwell. “She has to do it a certain way. It’s part of who she is and it’s part of who Mildred is. There’s something burning in her, just like those billboards. There’s something burning in Frances.”
What’s motivating McDormand right now is a new eagerness for work, now that her 22-year-old son with director Joel Coen has reached adulthood. For the 60-year-old McDormand, the opportunity to play a protagonist at her age was a gift “at a time I was ready for it.”
“After ‘Olive Kitteridge,’ I wasn’t really interested in going back and playing supporting roles anymore,” says McDormand. “They are women that we often don’t see portrayed in film — women who don’t have to be compromised for the storytelling of a male protagonist but who stand on their own in the dramatic arc of the storytelling. That was really important to me. I’m really interested in that now.”
Her Mildred is an immediately iconic character, complete with a defining shape. As if dressed for battle, she sports a bandanna (“It was a little Rambo,” McDormand explains) and a workmanlike blue jumpsuit. Why the jumpsuit?
“Well, I happen to know I look really good in a jumpsuit,” replies McDormand, an actress famed for her lack of vanity.
McDormand likes to imagine that Mildred, before her spree, spent months wallowing in grief, watching old movies on TV.
“No female cinematic characters came to mind quickly,” she says of Mildred. “Certainly a lot of strong female characters have been created by actors over the years — Barbara Stanwyck, Pam Grier — but not that specific kind that men usually get to play, like John Wayne, like Clint Eastwood, where all you need to know is what they do, not where they’re from.”
The movie, unsentimental and profanely un-PC, boasts more than a powerhouse performance from McDormand. Rockwell, also a veteran New York character actor, is among the ensemble’s many standouts. In his story and others, Mildred’s crusade unsettles the established order.
“It’s timely,” Rockwell says of the film. “It’s speaking to a lot of things that are going on in this country. It’s talking about racism and misogyny. Ultimately I think it’s about love and redemption, but I think it has a lot of anger in it — a healthy amount of anger.”
McDormand, herself, doesn’t exactly share Mildred’s rage. But she does connect with the film’s punk-rock ethos — that it’s time for some straight talk and some change. Missing in the sexual harassment fallout, she says, is the bigger picture.
“Like everything in our culture, the more women that wield power, the more stories will be told,” says McDormand. “And that’s where America is lagging way behind the international landscape of women being in power. So it’s time for us to catch up.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP