While it may seem like the only movie playing right now is Star Wars, that's not true. December is also Oscar-bait month, where films that are vying for the awards spotlight all come in a glut. When you're done hanging out in a galaxy far, far away, there's The Post, The Greatest Showman, The Darkest Hour and the bizarrely-named, mouthful of a title, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. What is that last one? What's it about? Is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a true story? It certainly sounds like it must be, with a title like that, right? But it's not.
The film, which most shorten to Three Billboards, is considered such an awards contender that it's been making the rounds of film festivals all year leading up to wide release. It stars the great Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a mother grieving over her daughter's rape and murder, and going slowly insane that the justice system doesn't seem to be doing anything about it. In her desperation to bring attention to her daughter's case, she takes out three billboards along the highway, calling out the local Sheriff, Bill Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson) and his deputy Jason Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell).
Sheriff Willoughby is already dying from cancer, and takes the billboards personally. Things escalate as the town divides — those who side with Willoughby and those who side with Hayes.
So, is this based on true events? Was there a Mildred Hayes who took out these billboards, calling out the Sheriff?
Surprisingly, no, though the plot certainly sounds like something that might be a true story. And director Martin McDonagh was inspired by something he saw that was sort of similar.
Talking to The LA Times, the London-born director explained what inspired the idea. He was on a bus trip heading to Texas, trying to get a feel for America as a country, when he spotted three billboards in a field in the middle of nowhere.
It was this raging, painful message calling out the cops about a crime. The title came from the concept and the concept came from that image, which stayed in my mind for years: What kind of pain would lead somebody to do that? It takes a lot of guts — and a lot of anger. Once I decided it was a mother who put up the billboards, the character of Mildred just sprang forth and the story kind of wrote itself. I just sat there and listened.
Despite the anger and pain of the story, what McDonagh found himself with at the end was more of a black comedy. So, he turned to Frances McDormand to see if she would agree to star.
Frances was the only woman in my head because I knew she wouldn’t sentimentalize Mildred or patronize the working-class aspects of her character. I also needed someone who has dexterity with humor. She knows how to play it deadpan and let the comedy take care of itself. Also, Frances has this steely determination, both as a person and as an actress.
Part of the reason the film also works is that there are no villains. Harrelson's portrayal of the Sheriff is decidedly of a man who is trying his best in a world where most crimes — especially those against women — never see justice. If anything, it's Rockwell's character Dixon who is the most villainous, with the stereotypical, homophobic, and racist behavior we might imagine a bad cop in a small town would exhibit. But he, too, has layers and depth.
Despite the title sounding like a real place and real events, there's actually no such place as Ebbing — not in Missouri, or anywhere else in the US for that matter. The movie was filmed in a small town in North Carolina. And while Mildred Hayes and her daughter might not have actually existed, their story is one that is far too familiar in our day and age. No, the film isn't based on true events. But it very well could be, and that's what counts.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is playing in theaters now.