Oscar 2018: Frances McDormand for Best Actress

Frances McDormand is arguably the most accomplished actress of her generation.

She made her film debut in the Coen Brothers’ 1985 noir classic Blood Simple and has gone on to a career that includes garnering the Triple Crown of Tony, Emmy and Oscar awards.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, the woman who sets in motion the events of writer-director McDonagh’s dark dramedy, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, one of the highlights of the 2017 Venice Film Fest.

“I wrote Mildred for Frances,” says McDonagh.  “There wasn’t any other actress I thought had all the elements that Mildred needed.  She had to be very in touch with a kind of working class sensibility as well as a rural sensibility.  She also had to be someone who wouldn’t sentimentalize the character.  All of Frances’s work is fundamentally truthful. I knew she could play the darkness of Mildred yet also have dexterity with the humor, while staying true to who Mildred is throughout.”

With the character, McDormand explored a tradition long reserved for men:  the lone hero who defiantly stands off against a town.

“We never discussed any other actress,” notes Graham Broadbent.  “Frances got the script when Martin was ready to show it, she said yes and that was that. Martin wrote such a specific character in Mildred and then Frances came in and uniquely inhabited her.  There are very few people who can run that full gamut of heartbreak and humor. Mildred can be pretty hard-nosed at times, but Frances was so tuned into her humanity that with just a few comic moments, the audience starts to align with her.”

McDormand ran into McDonagh 15 years ago following a performance of his award-winning play “The Pillowman” and after briefly talking about his new film career, she suggested he write a film role for her.  “As soon as those words were out of my mouth, I wished I could take them back because you’re not supposed to do that.  But then 15 years later he sent me the script,” she says.  “I read the script, I loved the script, and I couldn’t believe my great good fortune to be asked to play Mildred.”

“Something I think Martin is really good at is an almost Greek idea of human existence — there are so many epic, significant ideas he allows himself to explore in this story,” says McDormand.  “By making his protagonist female rather than male he takes it into the realm of grand tragedy.  He also plays with the modern revenge genre, but it’s not a film about female revenge.  By looking at how a female character seeks justice the story transcends gender to say something about the human condition.”

McDonagh’s amplified dialogue meshed with her own theatrical instincts.  McDormand calls McDonagh’s style “a form of magical realism, here mixed with a kind of Gothic Americana, based on the idea that people in small towns are not prosaic but poetic.”

To Wear or Not to Wear (Bandanna)

“Martin and I never shied away from the truth with each other, I would say anything to his face,” she says.  “Part of making the film was the combative nature of our conversations.  We never went into a scene without me questioning some line or the motivations of the character.  We particularly argued a lot about when Mildred wears the bandanna, which to me is a sign of her taking action — I wanted to wear it a lot more than he wanted.”

In addition to seeing Greek tragedy and magical realism in McDonagh’s work, McDormand also saw THREE BILLBOARDS as a subverted take on the Western.  She built Mildred upon the founding icons of the male-dominated genre, in part because she could find few examples of women in such roles.  “In retrospect, I also thought of Pam Greer in the 70s, but that’s not even right because Mildred doesn’t use her sexuality as Pam did,” she explains.

However, Mildred is not a gunslinger.  She’s a mother in search of justice for her daughter.  “As a mother, you live on the edge of disaster, you just do,” she describes. “I didn’t give birth to my son, I met him at 6 months old, but from the minute I held him and smelled him, I knew it was my job to keep him alive. And as a parent, you also come to see how the worry and the anxiety that goes along with protecting someone who you give yourself to in that way, that you surrender to, can become degenerative.”

Going for Broke

McDormand made the force of Mildred’s grief central to her performance.  “Mildred is really not a hero,” McDormand points out.  “She’s a much more complicated person than that.  She’s been left by grief in a no man’s land, in a place of no return.  One of the things I latched onto as I was thinking about Mildred is that there is no word in most languages for the position she is in. If you lose a husband, you’re a widow; if you lose a parent, you’re an orphan.  But there is no word for a parent who has lost a child because it’s just not supposed to happen biologically.  It’s something beyond the capacity of language – and that’s where Mildred has been left, so she goes for broke.”

McDormand was clear on one thing:   “It was Joel Coen, her husband] who said to me, ‘a person doesn’t become a hard-ass, Mildred was always a hard-ass.’ Under the circumstances, she is now fully exploring being a badass, but she would have always had that quality — which I think also explains her domestic situation with her husband Charlie.”

Also haunting Mildred are the off-hand remarks she made to her daughter — wishing the worst on her the very day that she was murdered. “How do you live with that?” asks McDormand.  “You can’t and she obviously can’t.”

To McDormand, Mildred has no tears to cry at this juncture, which accounts for the depths of her mercilessness with anyone who stands in her way.  “I believe that’s why she does what she does:  because she can’t find her vulnerability, she can’t access those emotions.  It’s much easier for her to throw a Molotov cocktail than to cry,” she observes.  “An image I had of Mildred’s was the little Dutch boy with his finger in the hole in the dyke – if Mildred takes her finger away, and lets all the emotions out, she’d be completely immobilized.  So her finger is staying there.”

“With Mildred, I think you don’t always understand her behavior, but you never hate her, you don’t vilify her,” McDormand observes.

Woody Harrelson, who plays Mildred’s targeted foe, Chief Willoughby, observes that one thing that sets McDormand apart is her thorough preparation for a role.  “Frances did the most painstaking work to understand Mildred, down to the whole backstory of her family and the daughter that we never really get to know because she’s already dead when the story begins,” he says.  “As an actor, she operates like a private investigator.  She comes in, finds everything she can out about her character and her performance really breathes out of that.  Frances also has a wicked sense of humor, so she was able to take things that were already funny on the page and make them that much funnier still.”

Says Rockwell of McDormand:  “Frances is such a fierce actor and her particular mix of tenacity and compassion matches Mildred.  She brings that fight-or-die quality.  She’s a pretty strong-willed person herself and like Mildred, she doesn’t take any shit, and that comes across very strongly.”

Though McDormand was constantly questioning the material, she and McDonagh agreed on how to walk the tightrope of the tone. “We were on the same page,” says McDonagh, “in terms of keeping an eye towards never letting the comedy of the piece override the emotional place Mildred is coming from.  We both felt Mildred should be free to rage, to be angry, to vent all she is feeling. Frances had a lot of different balls in the air, and she juggled all of them brilliantly.”

Early in her prep, McDormand hit on an idea that soon twined with her performance:  to have Mildred wear a singular outfit all through the film – a kind of unadorned, blue-collar regalia she dutifully puts on each day.  “Frances came up with Mildred wearing the same jumpsuit every day as a kind of ‘war uniform’ and I thought it was a great cinematic idea,” recalls McDonagh.  “We worked with costume designer Melissa Toth to ensure the jumpsuit wasn’t too one note, adding little touches to it here and there.  But I liked the idea that Mildred doesn’t have time to think about what she’s wearing; she’s at war.”

Adds Toth:  “Mildred is such a radical character the way Frances plays her and to her it was important to show that Mildred is on a daily quest that drives her from the moment she gets dressed in the morning. Sometimes she’s wearing a bandana, sometimes not and at one point she even wears her gift shop smock over the jumpsuit – but the jumpsuit really was the part of the performance for Frances. Sometimes a costume can liberate an actor allowing them to fully commit to their character.”

Toth was especially excited about the way the uniform became one with McDormand’s ferocity in the role.  “I love that Frances in this role sparks a very complex conversation about what kinds of roles women can and should inhabit,” she muses.  “There is nothing watered-down about Mildred.”