Josh Glicksman
November 17, 2017 AT 01:55 PM EST

When creating the thinking behind Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, director Martin McDonagh already knew that he wanted to get back to working with a female character at the forefront of the film.

“The idea for the movie came from a couple of ideas. One was to write a really, really strong woman character — a female lead — because I hadn’t really done that in the two films I’ve made before. They were kind of guy-central movies,” he told EW. “But, my background is theater, and my early plays had very strong female characters, so I wanted to get back to that. Because if you write a very strong female lead, you can go to places much more surprising than you can if you’re just doing a genre male lead kind of part.”

That female lead for Three Billboards became Mildred, the grieving mother played by Frances McDormand who channels her rage and anguish over her daughter’s murder into challenging local authorities to find the culprit.

McDonagh also discussed the necessity of finding the proper tone of the movie. Finding it took some work, he says, because there was a delicate balance between having too much comedy and making the film too dark.

“We knew we couldn’t veer off too much into comedy because it would take away from the sadness of the starting point of the story. At the same time, it didn’t want to be a dirge or a gloom fest. There needed to be a lightness of touch to stick with the story, and hopefully see the hope that is expressed throughout,” he explains.

Watch the full clip above. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, also starring Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, is in theaters now.

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