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Playback: Martin McDonagh on ‘Three Billboards’ and an Attraction to Dark Humor

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Martin McDonagh is riding a wave this week after his film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” cleaned up at the Golden Globes (four awards including best picture) and snapped up an impressive nine BAFTA nominations. It’s become one of the most popular films of the Oscar season, and it’s one right in line with McDonagh’s breed of dark humor, which he flexed on previous features “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” as well as his Oscar-winning short film “Six Shooter,” not to mention his work for the stage.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

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“I was kind of a punk rock kid,” McDonagh says when trying to trace his attraction to dark comedy. “I guess most of the movies I liked growing up was stuff like Billy Wilder’s stuff, and the early De Niro/Scorsese stuff I find quite funny, even though the subject matter is bleak. ‘Mean Streets’ is hilarious. I even think ‘Taxi Driver’ is hilarious in parts, too, but maybe that’s an issue I’ve got. It’s something I’ve always been drawn to as a storyteller.”

It’s also having a bit of a moment this season as two of the most beloved films of the year, “Three Billboards” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” wield dark humor with aplomb as both audiences (and awards voters) are eating it right up.

“Maybe it’s something in the political landscape in America,” McDonagh says. “You can’t just have frothy, mind-numbing comedies. I think because there are dark things going on, people are more in tune and angry about stuff and in tune with satire and questioning.”

The germ of “Three Billboards” developed when McDonagh himself saw a pair of billboards in the south bearing an “angry” and “painful” message calling out local law enforcement for inactivity and ineptitude. It lodged in the back of his head for a number of years until it filtered back into his work. He started by asking himself who would be so moved to act in this way. That brought him to a character, Mildred, which he wrote with actress Frances McDormand in mind. “I’m not sure who I would have gone to if she said no,” McDonagh says.

The film was part of a strong showing for female-centric films and television series at the Globes this year, where the “Time’s Up” movement was out in full swing. But it has also been criticized for a perceived tone-deafness toward racism and/or absolving racism through Sam Rockwell’s bigoted cop character, as well as relegating the realities of racism in America to background fodder and narrative devices, rather than in-depth explorations.

“I think some of [the criticism] comes from the idea that Sam’s character is redeemed at the end of the film, and I don’t think he is,” McDonagh says. “At the end he’s still the asshole he was at the start of the film, but hopefully by the end of it he’s seen that he needs to change. But the film isn’t about simple heroes and villains, and in no way does he become a hero in it. Part of the whole idea of the story is, ‘Who are the heroes and who are the villains and is anyone really that heroic?’ I wanted to explore the idea of a strong woman going against the police in the south, and I think the racial angle is one of the weapons she would throw at them. But the idea that there’s hope in a story like this, even with characters as despicable as Sam’s, I thought that was an interesting thing to explore.”

When prodded as to whether African American characters were given a fairer shake in earlier drafts of his screenplay, McDonagh does note that there were other scenes with actress Amanda Warren that didn’t make the finished cut. “But the story is pretty much focused on Frances’ character,” he says. “So it’s her story, and I’m sure the next film will be different, just as this is way different to the sort of male-centric films I did with the first two. But because it’s Frances’ story, it’s her that I was concentrating on, and no one else comes through as strongly as she does.”

For more, including McDonagh’s thoughts on the wave of activism on display at the Globes and talk about his work for radio and theater, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

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