Sometimes it can feel like we’re going backwards when it comes to the representation of women in cinema. Often seen through the male gaze as two-dimensional characters, the lack of fully rounded women characters on screen can be frustrating. And when you watch a film like Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s a stark reminder of how important it is to see strong female leads like the film’s protagonist, Mildred, on the big screen.
Not only is the character extremely well written, but she’s brought to life by the remarkable talents of Frances McDormand. And while McDormand is definitely one of a kind, there are a bunch of über-talented women in the industry that rarely get the chance to flex their acting chops like this because of underwritten roles – or a lack of decent roles full stop.
“I wanted to write a really strong female lead, and that was Frances McDormand — and it was written for her actually — as a really strong mother who goes to war with a bunch of cops who she feels aren’t doing enough to solve the crime of the murder of her daughter a year ago,” he says.
Whether McDonagh is able to explain fully why he felt compelled to write the character of Mildred in the first place isn’t patently clear. Perhaps it is in response to the dearth of strong female leads out there, wittingly or unwittingly. He does reveal that it was a real-life incident 20 years ago that sparked her story. In the film, Mildred’s ‘war’ starts with a provocative message she splashes across three billboards positioned on the side of a road outside the small fictional Missouri town, Ebbing.
“The idea behind the billboards came to me… I saw something not dissimilar when I was on a bus journey through America about 20 years ago, and it just kind of flashed by in the corner of my eye, but it was something as angry and as painful as what we see on the billboards in the early scenes,” says McDonagh. “So it was putting those two together, deciding a mother did something like that, it allowed… that character just popped. When you think that someone could be as strong but in as much pain to do that, you’ve got her already. And you just add Frances’s voice to that, and it’s kind of a fun journey to follow her on.”
Writing Mildred Was ‘Outrageous and Joyful’
Interestingly, conceiving and developing Mildred seemed to unlock a creative freedom within McDonagh that allowed him to write a character and film that are eliciting plenty of awards chatter.
So how did he approach writing his first female lead?
“No differently to writing a male lead really,” he begins. “My early plays did have quite strong women characters and I hadn’t really done that in the first two films I made. But weirdly, because she’s not just the female lead she’s such a strong and outrageous and provocative one, you find there’s a joy in writing her. Because you don’t know what she’s going to do from scene to scene. The audience doesn’t either, especially because you don’t, but … I think I’ll keep doing it because it’s outrageous and joyful.”
So there you are. We can all look forward to more characters like the funny, tough and unpredictable Mildred from the mind of Martin McDonagh. Let’s hope others follow suit.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri also stars Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage and Abbie Cornish. The film hits screens in the US on November 10 and in the UK on January 12. In the meantime, here’s the official synopsis for the darkly comic drama:
After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby, the town’s revered chief of police. When his second-in-command, Officer Dixon — an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence — gets involved, the battle is only exacerbated.