• Screenwriting tips: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – a first five page analysis

    The screenplay for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has been enjoying a lot of awards buzz this year, picking up BAFTA and Independent Spirit Award nominations last week and bagging the Best Screenplay award for writer Martin McDonagh at the Golden Globes earlier this month. Mandy News are going to breakdown the first five pages of the script so you writers, producers, directors and actors can see how it sets things up and hooks from the very beginning.

    22nd Jan 2018By Matthew Whitehouse

    The first five pages of Three Billboards are incredibly concise – this is a film about a bereaved woman, the three billboards she puts up in defiance of the police department and the local community's reaction to the drama – and, within the first five pages of the screenplay, all of these elements are delivered.

    On page one we meet Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand in the film), who stops her car to observe three billboards down a lonely road and making mental notes of them.

    Halfway through this first page, the catalyst for the story has been put into place – she visits Red Welby (played by Caleb Landry Jones in the film), the man to see if you wish to advertise something.

    From the first line, dialogue is stylised, we have an idea of where we are - if the explicit title hadn't already given it away, we'd know within a few seconds of dialogue where we are in the world:

    RED WELBY'S office, window looking onto MAIN STREET and the town's POLICE STATION. RED, a cool-looking young guy, pretends to read a Penguin Classic as he observes the office hottie, PAMELA, pass in a cute dress. MILDRED strides on in.

    You Red Welby?

    Yes, ma'am. How may I...?

    They said those three billboards out on Drinkwater Road, you're in charge of renting them out, that right?

    I didn't know we had any billboards out on...Where is Drinkwater Road?

    Road out past the Sizemore turn-off no-one uses since the highway got put in.

    RED checks a file. MILDRED observes a beetle on its back on the windowsill, trying to right itself.

    You're right. Got three billboards out there. Nobody's put nothing up out there since...1986. That was 'Huggies'.

    How much to rent out all three of 'em the year?"

    ***MANDY NOTES: The tone is immediately dry and funny, and we get a good idea of what Mildred is like, as well as a hint into what kind of town she lives in. Welby says “retard” an antiquated term that wouldn't be used in a more progressive town and likely not the only worn out slur used round these parts***

    The year? You wanna pay for three billboards on a road no-one goes down unless they got lost or they're retards, for a year?

    Quick, ain't ya, Welby?

    Well...since what I say goes these days down at the Ebbing Advertising Desk, I'm gonna strike you a real good deal on those billboards, now, what was it you said your name was, Mrs...?

    What's the law on what ya can and can't say on a billboard? I assume it's ya can't say nothing defamatory, and ya can't say, 'Fuck' 'Piss' or 'Cunt'. That right?

    (taken aback)

    Well I think I'll be alright then. Here's five thousand for the first month. I assume that'll cover it.

    ***MANDY NOTES: As she hand him the money along with what she wants the billboards to say, we get drip-fed another plot point.***

    Welby looks up at her sadly.

    I guess you're Angela Hayes' mother.

    That's right, I'm Angela Hayes' mother.

    ***MANDY NOTES: So in just under two pages, we've got mystery (What happened and how? What does she want written?) and motivation (Mildred is doing something with a strong purpose).

    On page three we skip forward to Easter weekend, and the billboards are being put up. We meet Officer Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell in the film), and it is revealed what Mildred wanted on each of the billboards.

    The writing on the last two billboards is revealed to us as Dixon struggles to get any information out of the Mexican workers putting them up.


    Dixon moves on to Jerome, another worker putting up a different sign.

    During this back and forth, we learn that Dixon is ignorant, a bigot and may not even know the full extent of the law he's supposed to be enforcing, as we see during an exchange with one of the workers.***

    JEROME spits on the ground, looks at him with disdain. DIXON stares back; a vicious edge between them.

    I could arrest you right now, if I wanted to.

    For what?

    For...emptying out our bucket there. It's against the...being bad against the environment laws.

    Well, before you do that, Officer Dixon, why don't you go have yourself a look at that first billboard over there, and then we can have ourself a talk about the motherfucking environment. How about that?

    ***MANDY NOTES: After some back and forth with the locals about what the billboards mean, Dixon is directed to the distant first board and rings the Chief to inform him.***

    Dixon, you goddam asshole, I'm in the middle of my goddam Easter dinner...


    DIXON is out of the car now, pacing.

    I know, Chief, and I'm sorry for calling ya at home and all, but uh, I think we've got kind of a problem...

    As DIXON passes out of frame, the FIRST BILLBOARD is revealed. It reads "RAPED WHILE DYING".

    WIDE SHOT of the three billboards stretching away to the distance.

    ***MANDY NOTES: The fifth page ends on a powerful image, both in terms of subject matter, and how visually striking it is.***

    This is an intriguing first five pages and offers up a number of interesting elements. It's clear, concise, well written and funny.

    We meet all the main characters, discover Mildred's motivation and establish a distinctive tone. Almost a short film in and of itself, the opening pages are a brash, compelling introduction to the world that McDonagh has created.

    Join us for more BAFTA nominee five page breakdowns where Mandy News will be dissecting Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, I, Tonya and Get Out.

    If you'd like more screenplay analysis, check out our minute-by-minute breakdown of Modern Family episode Caught in the Act.


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