Today, I’m going two for two. I will explain why Frances McDormand deserves her Best Leading Actress Oscar and why Sam Rockwell doesn’t deserve his Best Supporting Actor Oscar in “Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri.” Even if you don’t agree with me, hear me out.
I knew much less going about this movie going into it than I did about “I, Tonya.” I know even less about the actors themselves, besides that Frances McDormand was Marge in “Fargo.” This movie has a similar vibe to “Fargo.” It’s set in a small town where life appears pleasant and simple on the surface but has dark secrets and intrigues living deeper down.
However, McDormand is definitely not Marge. She plays Mildred Hayes, a divorced single mother who has lost a daughter to murder. She is smart, composed, and unafraid of speaking her mind and seems to be the only person driven enough to get results, like Marge was in “Fargo.” But, unlike Marge in “Fargo,” Mildred is not pleasant, upbeat, or as willing to avoid swearing. She is bitter, she is stubborn, she is sassy, she is impatient, she is crass, and she has a bone to pick with her town’s police. Underneath, she is still kind enough to help a struggling bug, but she is still bold enough to do what it takes to fight for what she wants, even if it means paying to have accusing and controversial messages against her town’s chief-of-police put on the billboards on a rural road.
Now, Mildred’s motives are highly sympathetic. Her daughter’s murder has not been solved in seven months. She is angry and thinks that no one will pay attention to her unless she acts out, so to speak, but to an extent, she is also unreasonable.
The town’s chief-of-police, William Willoughby, tries to reason with her. He tells Mildred that he has done all he can and he’s sympathetic enough to be believable. Chief Willoughby is dying of cancer and is clearly trying to do the best he can. He has to keep his hot-blooded police officers under control and try to be there for his family even though, according to him, he doesn’t have long. He just wants to do the best he can in the time he has left and is angry at the incompetency he sees. So, when you see him, it’s clear that Mildred’s accusations are ultimately unfair, because he’s not a bad cop.
Her determination to keep up the billboards despite all the opposition and all the pain it causes makes her more unlikable as a character, but amazingly, not enough to be considered despicable. In acting, being unlikable while being sympathetic is a hard balance to pull off. It is easier to be one or the other but not both at the same time. McDormand strikes this balance very believably and it is compelling to watch. She feels like a real woman dealing with grief and all the emotional complexities and contradictions it brings out. She deserves that Best Leading Actress Oscar for that reason alone.
On the other hand, Harrelson is the one who should have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Don’t get me wrong. Rockwell is great as the prejudiced cop going through a redemption arc. He is entertaining and performs as well as he can as Officer Jason Dixon, but in comparison to Harrelson, his character does not have nearly as much nuance.
Most of the time he’s on screen, Officer Dixon is spouting stereotypical bigoted dialogue and being a pathetic and egotistical child. The only time he starts redeeming himself and becoming sympathetic is towards the end. When he reads Willoughby’s letter to him after his suicide, he starts following his advice by calmly saving Mildred’s daughter’s file before he is almost burned to death in a fire that consumes the police station. Only then does Officer Dixon become interesting and start to have a nice redemption arc that ends with him becoming a decent person and detective, but before his arc, Officer Dixon is not interesting at all. The Chief stayed interesting for his whole performance.
I do not understand why Rockwell received an Oscar instead of Harrelson. The chief’s as complex a character as Mildred is. They complement each other beautifully on-screen as two frustrated and flawed souls trying to carry on with their difficult lives while dealing with incompetency and getting, sometimes, violently angry. The audience feels their pain. I wished I could reach into the movie to give them the comfort they needed and were not getting. Mildred and Chief Willoughby together carried this movie and left the biggest impacts. The two of them together should have won Oscars.