Frances McDormand used John Wayne as model in small-town revenge drama

VENICE (Reuters) - John Wayne was the inspiration for Frances McDormand’s portrayal of an angel of vengeance in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, the American said ahead of the movie’s premiere at the Venice film festival on Monday.

Director Martin McDonagh, actors Sam Rockwell, Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson pose during a photocall for the movie "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" at the 74th Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a woman who uses three billboards to publicly scold the local chief of police for failing to find the rapist and murderer of her teenage daughter and letting the case grow cold without a lead.

“When I was looking for ionic characters in cinema that I might model myself after as Mildred, the only ones I could find were male,” the actress told journalists in Venice.

She said she saw parallels between her character and Wayne’s where the protagonists are never just black or white.

“I used John Wayne’s walk. I can do a good John Wayne,” she said.

In the movie, director Martin McDonagh said he sought to point to all shades of gray, to see “humanity in everyone and not see anyone as particularly the hero or villain of the piece”.

Mildred, a furious and unforgiving small-town single mother, faces off with the town’s revered police chief Bill Willoughby - Woody Harrelson - who wants to help but does not know how, especially as he is battling with cancer at the same time.

Add to the mix police officer Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, who is immature and has a liking for violence and racism.

In one scene, Willoughby accidentally spits blood onto Mildred’s face as he is urging her to give up her crusade.

“When the blood hits, (we do see) how much they actually care about each other as human beings, so the thing was to see that humanity in everybody,” McDonagh said.

After focusing on male protagonists in his previous films, the British-Irish director chose a woman to lead this story because “if you have a strong female character your room for maneuver, for surprises, is much greater than having a guy”.

Strong female parts allows you “to go to dark and dangerous places that an audience hasn’t seen ... and that’s exciting as a writer, to not know what the character’s going to do next”.

The drama, melancholic but interspersed with some funny dialogue, is one of 21 U.S. and international movies vying for the Golden Lion which will be awarded on Sept. 9.

The Venice film fest is once again seen as the launchpad for the Oscar season, but McDonagh, who won an Academy Award for his short film “Six Shooter” and was nominated for another with “In Bruges”, said recognition was not the aim of making this film.

Aiming for fame or Oscars would “taint the truth of what you’re doing”, he said. “If it happened it would be fine and fun, because the times I’ve done it, it’s silly fun, but it’s not the first priority.”

Reporting by Agnieszka Flak; Editing by Alison Williams