In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards on March 4, EW is taking a closer look at some of the screenplays honored in the original and adapted categories. Each weekday between now and Oscar night, a nominated writer will break down a single scene that was essential to the stories they were telling and explain how the pages came together.
Our Best Writing deep dives for 2017 begin with what’s easily become the most controversial film of the awards cycle. Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri follows Mildred (Frances McDormand), a mother consumed with rage over the unsolved rape and murder of her teenage daughter. What begins as a series of public ads turns into an all-out war with the patriarchy in Ebbing.
That includes the Catholic Church, an institution that the Ireland-born McDonagh knows well. “We had already set up the cops, her main antagonists,” McDonagh said. “Then it’s like, ‘Who else is in authority in a small town? Or who else do I as a writer want to tear a new a–hole out of?’ Obviously, the Catholic Church always springs to mind.” Mildred’s encounter with Father Montgomery was always in the script, which took McDonagh only five weeks to write back in 2010.
Below, McDonagh elaborates on the creation of the scene and Mildred’s monologue.
McDONAGH: “Including [Mildred’s son] Robbie in this scene was like a gentle route in and a family route in. I think the idea of a semi-innocent overhearing all of that stuff— if it was just Mildred versus the priest, I don’t think it would be quite as interesting as having a quiet observer in the corner.”
“I don’t put hardly any sort of stage directions or image stuff into the script itself. There’s hardly anything in the script because it’s mostly dialogue and very minor character details. After a script is written, I always go off and storyboard it on my own. That’s a whole different layer of image and almost blocking in my head that never actually goes into the script. I’ve got it side-by-side with the script on each shooting day. Martin the Writer is in the bar.”
“The main inspiration for the scene was to have Mildred going against another form of authority. There’s a lot that’s almost anarchistic about her character in the old sense of the world, so definitely the church would be a voice that would come and try to get her to stop. Obviously, the strength of her voice was going to have to counter that.”
“I just always had the knowledge of those laws in my mind as not being quite fair. If there’s the idea that that is fair, why not extend that to one of the biggest, most terrifying gangs in the world. That’s the Catholic church, so it seems like a no-brainer now.”
“Even in my plays, I don’t really have speeches as long as that. Even in the text of a play for one of my characters to speak for a page and a half almost. It always was a centerpiece of the writing. I know for Frances, it was the biggie. It’s the big monologue that was always sort of hanging over her. Obviously, she had to memorize it in full.
“On the page, it looked like a lot, but it was there for a reason. In fact, the tone of it, she kind of glides into it and brings up this kind of weird Crips and Bloods analogy, but we don’t know what kind of analogy it is at the start. Even as a writer and especially as an audience member, you’re thinking that we shouldn’t know where she’s going with this for at least the first half a page. Then things should slowly fall into place, because you know it’s not going to end well for the priest. That was part of the joy of writing it. How long can you delay the punch in the guts to the priest?”
“I didn’t realize that Robbie was going to have the final punchline to the scene, but it was perfect. He almost says nothing throughout. That little sarcastic grace note that he throws in is almost as much fun as Mildred’s line, ‘Finish up your tea and get the f— out of my kitchen,’ which even in the edit, could have been an endpoint. But there’s a sweet and more sarcastic way to finish, and that was with Robbie.”