Actress Frances McDormand is winning universal raves for her profane, humane performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The new movie by playwright-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) premiered Monday in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
In a wide-ranging conversation with EW about the film and her career (read more here), McDormand addressed the unsentimental nature of her work, especially in recent years. The actress won an Oscar for her iconic role as a good-hearted, pregnant sheriff in 1996’s Fargo, but reminded audiences the world over of her flinty daring with HBO’s 2014 miniseries Olive Kitteridge. In that four-hour TV marvel, she played a seemingly cold-to-the-touch suicidal woman in small town Maine. The Emmy-winning performance is a master class in making an unsympathetic character into someone still utterly dynamic.
“When I played Olive, [director] Lisa Cholokendo and I had many conversations about the character’s lack of vulnerability,” McDormand says. “It could be partly my taste. It’s just my belief that there are female characters that will benefit from not being vulnerable. And that was an ongoing debate between all of us working on it.”
McDormand found herself having very similar conversations with McDonagh while working on Three Billboards. In the film, she plays a grieving mother named Mildred who’s pushing the local police department to investigate her daughter’s murder. Her efforts include renting a billboard to taunt the cops — an act that leads to an escalating war with the town’s law enforcement.
“Martin and I, again, had some of the same conversations about vulnerability,” she says. “I believed there were places where Mildred simply can’t access her emotions. So why be afraid of that? Everybody is f—ing crying in movies all the time, even the men! For me, that’s not Greek tragedy, it’s a therapy session. It’s about neuroses and not pain and rage. There’s something healing about tears. If Mildred’s emotions are so accessible, if she can so easily go to tears, then why is she so filled with rage? Because if you can cry out the pain, you don’t need to burn down the police station. So I was interested in her being locked out of her own humanity.”
The actress cites the final moments of the reigning Best Picture Oscar winner to illustrate her point. “The last scene in Moonlight, that’s one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen on film in my lifetime. You see two men showing such tenderness towards each other. And it’s bold, it’s deep, it’s complex, it’s profound. And they do not f—ing cry!”
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens in theaters on Nov. 10. With the reviews she’s receiving, you can expect to see a lot of McDormand all through this coming awards season. And you can also expect that if she walks on stage next March to collect her second Oscar, her eyes will be totally dry.