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Director Martin McDonagh talks about his Oscar-buzz movie 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

Martin McDonagh created roles specifically for Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell in 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,' and both are on the short list for Oscar nominations.

Director/writer Martin McDonagh and actress Frances McDormand on the set of "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
Director/writer Martin McDonagh and actress Frances McDormand on the set of "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."Read moreMerrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

Playwright/filmmaker Martin McDonagh says his big-buzz new movie is, among other things, a plea for tolerance.

He sounds serious, but he's the same guy who in that same movie — Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in theaters Wednesday — has the diminutive Peter Dinklage excuse himself from the dinner table to announce that he's headed to "the little boy's room."

Dinklage, though, is an old friend of McDonagh's, and has worked with the director since his debut film In Bruges. McDonagh's unofficial acting company also includes Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell — both appear in the director's Seven Psychopaths and they have pivotal roles in Ebbing, playing police officers taunted by a woman (Frances McDormand) who wants to know why her daughter's murder has not been solved.

Her character goes from sympathetic to appalling and back again, and the audience stays riveted throughout — it's why, for McDonagh, no other actress would do.

Read more: 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri': One of the year's angriest, and best

"She's just so good at being naturally truthful. There's such an integrity to that. She also has this great facility for comedy, but she never overplays anything. Also, this [role] is something she's never done before, and I don't think audiences have ever seen her in quite this way,"

Indeed: kicking teenage boys in the groin (to choose an examples from the trailer) is not necessarily how we see McDormand.

"What she does, without saying anything, is make sure that everyone keeps uppermost in their mind the tragedy that has befallen her," he said. "It's there in every scene, whether she's being tough or angry or funny."

McDonagh made his name as a playwright in London, and has developed a reputation for biting dialogue and rich characterization that has actors flocking to him. He first met Rockwell while casting a play, and though that didn't pan out, was thrilled to cast him in Psychopaths. Rockwell isn't a huge name, McDonagh said, but he's prized among directors because he makes them look good.

"I knew I wanted to work with Sam since seeing him in [Chuck Barris sorta-biopic] Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and he's been great in everything since then," McDonagh said. "I actually can't believe he didn't win an Oscar for Moon."

Rockwell is being talked up for a nomination (as is McDormand) for his complex turn as a racist police officer, managing to suggest a man whose hate is learned and can be unlearned.

That trajectory is one of the movie's subjects.

"I think [in Rockwell and McDormand's characters] you see the rage and the anger and all of that stuff we're feeling now. I guess I'm more hopeful that we're going to step back from rage  and kind of see the other person's point of view. Maybe see that we're actually on each other's side to a degree."

McDonagh has  a play (The Hangman) opening in New York in January, and plans to debut another in London next year.

"I love theater, and I love movies. I'm going to keep going back and forth," said McDonagh, who thinks it will be another four years until his next film.

Four years?

"You're just going to have to deal with it."