All cinefiles love a good Western. High Noon, Shane, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Unforgiven are a few of the best. But a Western doesn’t have to take place in the past, or even in the Old West. Some Westerns take place in space, like Outlander, Star Trek and Avatar. Others take place in modern day like Hell or High Water or Black Hat. Some are set in the future, like Mad Max or Logan.
The new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a Western set in modern times. Mildred (Frances McDormand) is at her wits’ end when seven months after her daughter’s brutal murder, police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) still hasn’t found any suspects. To put pressure on Willoughby, Mildred rents three billboards on the edge of town calling out Willoughby by name. This act of rebellion sends the entire town into a frenzy.
We spoke to writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) to find out more about the elements needed to make a modern Western.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
No. 1 — A new frontier
Classic Westerns take place in the untamed frontier of the Old West. That dry, unforgiving landscape is symbolic of a harsh, lawless, and often godless reality. Three Billboards take place in a small town with that same feeling of lawlessness.
“In terms of a Western,” says McDonagh, “it’s a one street town and in some ways Francis’ character strides in to take care of the bad guys, but of course it’s not as simplistic as that.”
Though Ebbing, Missouri, isn’t necessarily “a new frontier,” Mildred’s predicament is certainly a new frontier for her psychologically and emotionally. She commits to bringing justice for her daughter no matter what the cost.
No. 2 — The cowboy
Obviously, the cowboy doesn’t have to ride a horse and wear a cowboy boots. In a modern Western, your cowboy just needs to be a protagonist seeking justice.
“Frances based some degree of Mildred on John Wayne,” says McDonagh, “His walk and kind of cowboy attitude. I think when Carter Burwell [who scored the film] saw those aspects of the story he kind of added this spaghetti western-like themed tunes for her which as soon as he played it for me, I thought it was beautiful. So I think those two elements added to the Western feel of the story.”
McDonagh says writing a female protagonist was, “Almost freeing. Much more than it would be if I were writing a guy because I think from the outset, anyone who would up three billboards up that sent such a strong message, and coming from a place of such a raging anger, you almost know what the character is like before you heard her talk. Sending a character like that out into the story was exciting.”
No. 3 – The cowboy hat
This is an important trope in a Western because the hat symbolizes a person’s readiness to roll up one’s sleeves, fight outlaws and ride the trails. In Three Billboards, Mildred dons a bandana when she is at her fiercest. Her bandana functions as her cowboy hat, signifying that she is ready to fight.
She also wears the same jumpsuit through the entire film. “I liked the idea that Mildred doesn’t have time to think about what she’s wearing,” says McDonagh, adding, “She’s at war.”
No. 4 — The savages
Most Westerns feature bank robbers or Native Americans as the savages who function as the antagonist. In Three Billboards, the savage is a brutal rapist and murderer and those in society who protect him.
No. 5 — The gunfight
All Westerns need a gunfight. In this film it comes when Mildred decides to destroy the police station using a dozen or so Molotov cocktails. It’s a brutal, fiery scene that takes a turn when she discovers there’s actually someone inside.
No. 6 — Law and order is restored
By the end of the film, a new sheriff is put into place and some rough justice on a rapist seems about to take place. Though this ending doesn’t give the satisfaction of the criminal put behind bars, or hanged, McDonagh says, “The whole film is trying to do something that isn’t the usual Hollywood affair so there’s no reason to tie things up in a perfect Hollywood ending.”
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is currently playing in theaters.