We first met the force of nature called Frances McDormand when she starred in her first film, “Blood Simple,” as Abby, a cold-hearted wife cheating on her extremely jealous husband. It was also the first film by the Coen Brothers, with whom McDormand would continue to work over the years (she’s married to Joel Coen), most notably as Marge Gunderson, the small-town police chief in “Fargo,” for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. In a career that’s included roles shifting from drama to comedy back to drama again, she’s won scads of other awards, the most recent big one being an Emmy for her starring performance in “Olive Kitteridge.”
In the new drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” she plays Mildred Hayes, a woman who’s had the life sucked out of her when her teenage daughter was raped and murdered. Seven months after the awful events, she has reached her limit of patience with the local police, who haven’t found a clue about the perpetrator, and decides to take action herself. But this is no revenge-minded Liam Neeson-like character. Mildred has her own special plan, and McDormand plays the part with total seriousness and a wry edge. She spoke about the film at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Q: What was your initial reaction to Mildred when you read the script?
A: I was thrilled. I thought Mildred was amazing. I was flattered. But then I said to (writer-director) Martin McDonagh, “No, I’m sorry, I’m too old for the part.” That was a couple of years ago, when I was 58. I’m really interested in playing my age; I like being my age. We went back and forth about that for quite a while, then finally my husband said, “Just shut up and do it!” (laughs)
Q: You come from the theater. Did that experience prepare you much for film work?
A: I think that part of what made us an automatic ensemble in this film is that most of us came out of the theater. That’s our foundation, and it’s the best foundation for any kind of acting work.
Q: There’s an interesting balance of the serious story with some really offbeat comic moments. Was that there from the beginning?
A: A really important factor is that we started with a piece of literary material. Martin wrote a script that stands on its own. It’s not a blueprint for a film, it’s an actual literary document, and when a company can go back to something like that — I call it a bible — then three quarters of the work is done. I think we all knew that at its core it’s a story about grief and trauma. But lots of things come out of that experience, and sometimes it can be funny.
Q: There are also some rather violent scenes in the film, some of them involving your character. What was that like for you?
A: I LOVED throwing the Molotov cocktails. I actually was quite proud that I could land them all the way across the street. For some reason those bottles really worked. But I had a little trouble running the long distances, and at one point I was tired and just fell to my knees. After Martin said cut he said, “That was brilliant. I loved that falling to the knees.” And I said, “No, that was me. I need a break.”
Q: Getting back to playing Mildred, was there one particular thing that really attracted you to the character?
A: What’s great about Mildred is that she stands out of time in our culture. She’s not based on ageism. It’s not about her trying not to be her age or having to carry the mantle of a female of a certain age. She’s just a parent who’s lost her child.
Q: Do you think the film will be cathartic for some viewers?
A: One of the things I learned in talking to people is the fact that when you lose a spouse, you’re a widow or a widower. When you lose your parents, you’re an orphan. But when you lose a child, there’s no word for that. We talked a lot about that for Mildred; there was her daughter’s death, then seven months of paralysis, then she became radicalized. The only way that she could survive was by action, not paralysis.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” opens on Nov. 17.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.