How did Three Billboards pick up so much awards momentum?
To understand how Three Billboards emerged as an awards season favorite, it's worth looking at the ecosystem from which it emerged. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September and also screened the same month at the Toronto Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. Recent winners of that particular prize include Oscar contenders La La Land, Room, The Imitation Game, 12 Years a Slave, and Silver Linings Playbook. Often if a movie is a hit with festival-goers in Toronto, there's a chance Oscar talk will follow.
In addition to winning over audiences, the film also picked up positive reviews from critics. Writing for Variety, critic Owen Gleiberman described it as "a quirky emotional puzzle put together by a trickster poet" and praised the performances by McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell, who he cheered as "a revelation." A glowing review from Venice for Vanity Fair noted that McDormand's speech to a preacher in the film was "an Oscar clip in the making."
It's not uncommon for movies to ride the momentum generated at festival screenings to the Oscars. When Three Billboards was given a limited release in November by Fox Searchlight, the consensus in most outlets was similar to what viewers had said about the movie in Toronto, with reviewers shining a light on the writing and performances. Though it was more divisive than other Oscar favorites like Get Out or Lady Bird, which both hold 99% fresh scores on Rotten Tomatoes, it was still on its way to being one of the most well-reviewed movies of the year.
The movie's timeliness was also viewed as an asset. In the wake of increased discussions about sexual abuse in Hollywood and beyond, McDormand's role was often noted as a complex, layered study of a woman's righteous anger. "There are better movies in 2017 than Martin McDonagh's dark comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," wrote Buzzfeed's Allison Wilmore in a thoughtful essay on the film. "But no performance this year has felt more rawly resonant than Frances McDormand's turn as its caustic heroine, Mildred Hayes."
The combination of relevant themes, positive reviews, and strong box office returns -- the movie has currently grossed over $100 million on a reported $12 million budget -- would likely put Three Billboards on the fasttrack to Oscar glory. Already an award-winning playwright, McDonaugh is hardly a newcomer to the Academy's stage: He won the Best Live Action Short Film award in 2005 for his short Six Shooter and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay in 2008 for the offbeat Colin Farrell crime thriller In Bruges. But the type of attention, prestige, and acclaim heaped on Three Billboards was new for his relatively small filmography. (His last movie, 2012's dark comedy Seven Psychopaths, came and went quietly.) The heightened scrutiny was also new.