Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
|Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Martin McDonagh|
|Written by||Martin McDonagh|
|Music by||Carter Burwell|
|Edited by||Jon Gregory|
|Distributed by||Fox Searchlight Pictures|
|Box office||$159.2 million|
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a 2017 crime drama film written, directed, and produced by Martin McDonagh and starring Frances McDormand as a mother who rents three billboards to call attention to her daughter’s unsolved murder. Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage appear in supporting roles. It was released in the United States in November 2017 and in the United Kingdom in January 2018 by Fox Searchlight Pictures and grossed $159 million worldwide.
At the 90th Academy Awards, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was nominated for seven awards and won Best Actress (McDormand) and Best Supporting Actor (Rockwell). At the 75th Golden Globe Awards, it won Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actress – Drama (McDormand), Best Supporting Actor (Rockwell), and Best Screenplay. It won three SAG Awards, including Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, and five BAFTA Film Awards, including Best Film and Outstanding British Film.
In the town of Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes is grieving the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, Angela, seven months earlier. Angry over the lack of progress in the investigation, Mildred rents three abandoned billboards near her home, and posts on them: “Raped While Dying“, “Still No Arrests?“, and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” The billboards upset the townspeople, including Chief Bill Willoughby and the racist, violent, alcoholic Officer Jason Dixon. The open secret that Willoughby suffers from terminal pancreatic cancer adds to everyone’s disapproval. Mildred and her son Robbie are harassed and threatened, but to Robbie’s chagrin, she stays firm about keeping the billboards up.
While Willoughby is sympathetic to Mildred’s frustration, he finds the billboards an unfair attack on his character. Angered by Mildred’s lack of respect for his authority, Dixon threatens businessman Red Welby, who rented Mildred the billboards, and he arrests her friend and coworker, Denise, on trivial marijuana possession charges. Mildred is also visited by her abusive ex-husband Charlie, who blames her for their daughter’s death.
Willoughby brings Mildred in for questioning after she drills a hole in her dentist’s thumb when he threatens her. During the interview, Willoughby coughs up blood. He leaves the hospital against medical advice and spends an idyllic day with his wife Anne and their two daughters, then commits suicide to spare his family the pain of watching him die of cancer. He leaves suicide notes for several people, including Mildred, in which he explains that she was not a factor in his suicide and that he secretly paid to keep the billboards up for another month, amused at the trouble this will bring her and hope that they will keep attention on the murder. Dixon reacts to the news of Willoughby’s death by assaulting Welby and throwing him out of a window. This is witnessed by Willoughby’s replacement, Abercrombie, who fires Dixon. Meanwhile, Mildred is threatened by a crop-haired stranger in her store.
The billboards are destroyed by arson. Mildred retaliates by tossing Molotov cocktails at the police station, which she believes is unoccupied for the night. However, Dixon is there to read Willoughby’s letter to him, which advises him to let go of hate and learn to love, as the only way to realize his wish to become a detective. Dixon escapes with Angela’s case file but suffers severe burns. Mildred’s acquaintance James witnesses the incident and provides Mildred with an alibi, claiming they were on a date. Dixon is treated for his burns, and he is temporarily confined in the same hospital room as Welby, to whom he apologizes.
Discharged from the hospital, Dixon overhears the man who threatened Mildred bragging in a bar of having raped and killed a girl in the same manner as Mildred’s daughter. He notes the Idaho license plate number of the man’s vehicle, then provokes a fight by scratching the man’s face. He then removes a sample of the man’s DNA from under his fingernails. Meanwhile, Mildred goes on a date with James to thank him for the alibi. Charlie enters with his 19-year-old girlfriend Penelope, mocks James, and admits to burning the billboards while intoxicated. James senses that Mildred went out with him out of pity, and leaves angrily. Mildred tells Charlie to treat Penelope well and leaves.
Though commending him, Abercrombie informs Dixon that the DNA sample does not match DNA found on Angela’s body, and that the man was overseas on military duty nine months before. Dixon concludes that the man must be guilty of some other rape, and joins Mildred on a trip to Idaho in order to kill him. On the way, Mildred confesses to Dixon that she set the police station on fire; he indicates that he knew already. They express uncertainty about their mission, but agree to decide what to do along the way.
- Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes
- Woody Harrelson as William ‘Bill’ Willoughby
- Sam Rockwell as Jason Dixon
- Abbie Cornish as Anne Willoughby
- John Hawkes as Charlie Hayes
- Peter Dinklage as James
- Caleb Landry Jones as Red Welby
- Kerry Condon as Pamela
- Darrell Britt-Gibson as Jerome
- Lucas Hedges as Robbie Hayes
- Željko Ivanek as Desk Sergeant
- Amanda Warren as Denise
- Kathryn Newton as Angela Hayes
- Samara Weaving as Penelope
- Clarke Peters as Chief Abercrombie
- Brendan Sexton III as Crop-Haired Guy
While traveling through the Southern United States in around 1998, Martin McDonagh came across a couple of accusatory billboards about an unsolved crime, which he described as “raging and painful and tragic” alleging the murder of a woman in Vidor, Texas. The billboards highlighted the incompetence of police work and deeply affected McDonagh; he said that the image “stayed in my mind […] kept gnawing at me” and presumed that they were put up by the victim’s mother.[a] This incident, combined with his desire to create strong female characters, inspired him to write the story for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDonagh discussed the creative process, saying that it took him about ten years to “[decide] that it was a mother who had taken these things out. It all became fiction […] based on a couple of actual billboards”.
Casting and filming
The character of Mildred was written with Frances McDormand in mind, and likewise the character of Dixon was written specifically for Sam Rockwell. McDormand initially felt that she was older than the character as it was written, and suggested that Mildred instead be Angela’s grandmother; McDonagh disagreed, feeling that it would change the story too much. McDormand’s husband Joel Coen persuaded her to take the part regardless. McDormand took inspiration for her character from John Wayne; and Rockwell, wanting to make his character “the exact opposite” of Mildred, took inspiration for his character in part from Wayne’s co-star in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Lee Marvin.
Principal photography began on May 2, 2016, in Sylva, North Carolina, and ran for 33 days. Allison Outdoor Advertising of Sylva built the actual billboards, which were put in a pasture near Black Mountain, North Carolina because that location was better. Most of the time the billboards were covered because people in the area found them upsetting. David Penix of Arden, North Carolina bought the billboards and used the wood for a roof in Douglas Lake in Tennessee, though the messages are no longer in order. Town Pump Tavern in Black Mountain, which had appeared in The World Made Straight, was used as a set and was closed for three days during filming. A pool table and booths were added. The bar’s actual sign appeared in the film.
The musical score was written by Carter Burwell, who had also supplied the score for McDonagh’s films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. As well as Burwell’s score, the film features songs by ABBA, Joan Baez, The Felice Brothers, the Four Tops, Monsters of Folk, and Townes Van Zandt.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri premiered in competition at the 74th Venice International Film Festival on September 4, 2017. It also had screenings at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, the 2017 San Sebastián International Film Festival (where it won the Audience Award), the BFI London Film Festival, and the 2017 Zurich Film Festival. It was also screened at the Mar del Plata International Film Festival.
In the United States, the film was released, by Fox Searchlight Pictures, on November 10, 2017, beginning with a limited release, before “going wide” on December 1. The film was released on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on February 27, 2018. Six Shooter, McDonagh’s Academy Award-winning short film, is included as a bonus.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri grossed $54.5 million in the United States and Canada, and $104.1 million in other countries, for a worldwide total of $158.6 million.
In its limited opening weekend, the film made $322,168 from four theaters for a per-theater average of $80,542, the fourth best of 2017. The film made $1.1 million from 53 theaters in its second weekend and $4.4 million from 614 in its third, finishing a respective 9th and 10th at the box office. In the weekend following its four Golden Globe wins the film was added to 712 theaters (for a total of 1,022) and grossed $2.3 million, and increase of 226% from the previous week’s $706,188. The weekend of January 27, 2018, following the announcement of the film’s seven Oscar nominations, it made $3.6 million (an increase of 87% over the previous week’s $1.9 million), finishing 13th. The weekend of March 9–11, following its two Oscar wins, the film made $705,000, down 45% from the previous week’s $1.3 million.
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 92% based on 324 reviews, and an average rating of 8.5/10. The website’s critical consensus reads, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri deftly balances black comedy against searing drama – and draws unforgettable performances from its veteran cast along the way.” On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating to reviews, the film had a weighted average score of 88 out of 100, based on 50 critics, indicating “universal acclaim.” Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of “A–” on an A+ to F scale.
Owen Gleiberman of Variety praised the film’s performances, stating “It’s Mildred’s glowering refusal to back down that defines her, and McDormand brilliantly spotlights the conflicted humanity beneath the stony façade,” and called Rockwell’s performance a “revelation.” Steve Pond, writing for TheWrap, praised McDonagh’s writing, calling it “Very funny, very violent and surprisingly moving.”
Some criticized the script for McDonagh’s portrayal of small town America. The New York Times columnist Wesley Morris called McDonagh’s portrayal of rural America a caricature: “a set of postcards from a Martian lured to America by a cable news ticker and by rumors of how easily flattered and provoked we are.” Tim Parks in The New Yorker praised the “magnificently photographed images”, but wrote that the plot contained “a thousand cheap coincidences”. He concluded that the film is “empty of emotional intelligence” and “devoid of any remotely honest observation of the society it purports to serve.”  In her review for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote “[McDonagh’s] jokes can be uninterestingly glib with tiny, bloodless pricks that are less about challenging the audience than about obscuring the material’s clichés and overriding theatricality.”
The film was also controversial for its handling of racial themes, particularly surrounding the redemptive arc of Officer Dixon. In The Daily Beast, blogger Ira Madison III called the treatment of Rockwell’s character “altogether offensive…McDonagh’s attempts to script the black experience in America are often fumbling and backward and full of outdated tropes.” Alyssa Rosenberg noted in The Washington Post that “[Dixon’s] redemption doesn’t merely defang his previous venomous bigotry; it softens Mildred’s character development.”
At the 75th Golden Globe Awards, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actress – Drama (McDormand), Best Supporting Actor (Rockwell), and Best Screenplay, and was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Score. At the 71st British Academy Film Awards, it received nine nominations, including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actress in a Leading Role (McDormand), and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for both Rockwell and Harrelson. It won five awards, including Best Film and Outstanding British Film (making it the only film along with The King’s Speech to win both awards since the latter category was reintroduced in 1992) while both McDormand and Rockwell won the Lead Actress and Supporting Actor awards respectively. It was nominated for four awards at the 24th Screen Actors Guild Awards, winning three, including Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. At the 90th Academy Awards it received seven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Frances McDormand, Best Original Screenplay for Martin McDonagh and two Best Supporting Actor nominations for both Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. McDormand and Rockwell took home their respective awards.
It was named one of the top 10 films of the year by the American Film Institute. At the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, the film won its top prize, the People’s Choice Award. At the 2017 San Sebastián International Film Festival, it won the Audience Award.
On February 15, 2018, Justice4Grenfell, an advocacy group created in response to the Grenfell Tower fire, hired three vans with electronic screens in a protest against perceived inaction in response to the fire. The vans were driven around London, and displayed messages in the style of the billboards in the film: ‘71 Dead‘, ‘And Still No Arrests?‘, ‘How Come?‘
In response to the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that took place on February 14, 2018, in Parkland, Florida, activist group Avaaz had three vans circle Florida senator Marco Rubio‘s offices displaying ‘Slaughtered in School‘, ‘And Still No Gun Control?‘, ‘How Come, Marco Rubio?‘
On the night of February 15, 2018, the movement #OccupyJustice set up three billboards and a number of banners in Malta, marking the four-month anniversary of the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. The billboards bore the text ‘A Journalist Killed. No Justice.‘, ‘A Country Robbed. No Justice.‘, and ‘No Resignations. No Justice.‘ The authorities removed the billboards the following day, stating that they were illegal. The government was criticized for this move, and a day after their removal, activists laid down banners with similar text near Auberge de Castille, the Office of the Prime Minister.
Outside the Bristol city centre on February 3, 2018, a mural was erected depicting three billboards reading ‘Our NHS is dying‘, ‘And still no more funding‘, and ‘How come, Mrs May‘. It was installed by the groups People’s Republic of Stokes Croft and Protect Our NHS in response to the alleged privatization of the National Health Service (NHS) and the death of a 15-year-old girl attributed by some to a purported lack of resources by the NHS.
On February 22, 2018, the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, protesting the inaction of the UN’s role within the Syrian Civil War, set up three billboards outside the United Nations building in New York that read ‘500,000 Dead in Syria‘, ‘And still no action?‘, and ‘How come, Security Council‘.
On or around March 1, around the time of the 2018 Oscars, three billboards were taken out in Los Angeles, stating “WE ALL KNEW AND STILL NO ARRESTS”, “AND THE OSCAR FOR BIGGEST PEDOPHILE GOES TO…” and “NAME NAMES ON STAGE OR SHUT THE HELL UP!”, as an attempt to protest both the Oscars and the #MeToo movement.
Both McDormand and McDonagh have responded positively to the protests, with McDonagh saying “You couldn’t ask for anything more than for an angry film to be adopted by protests,” and McDormand saying she is “thrilled that activists all over the world have been inspired by the set decoration of the three billboards in Martin’s film.”