Three Billboards Outside– Where, Exactly?

It appears Frances McDormand ‘inclusion rode’ her way into another well-earned victory for Best Actress in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). The peculiar little tale follows a mother scorn after the her daughter’s murder and the darkly comedic aftermath of her small town’s police department. Three Billboards sailed through awards season with high praise for its chaotic glance at the lives of the well-worn. Full of ne’er-do-wells, drunkards and corrupt cops, the fictional Ebbing, Missouri presented a darling depiction of audience’s collective understanding of hardened middle America.

Which is why it struck me, throughout the film, that Ebbing, Missouri didn’t much look like my memory of middle America at all. Instead the film’s winding roads, babbling brooks ands rolling landscape reminded me more of my region–much closer to Appalachia. And it turns out I was right, as filming locations for Three Billboards were accredited to Asheville, North Carolina and surrounding areas.

I took my good eye for geography in stride, but it also got me thinking. Are these entirely different places passable as one another? Of course filming locations have fudged believability since the beginning of film; crews of thousands have transformed California backlots into settings across the globe (and beyond). But Three Billboards’s setting is so integral to the story it nearly becomes a secondary character evolving with the community’s loss and frustration.

North Carolina and Missouri are, in my mind, separate entities. I grew up in rural Virginia and spent my life visiting family in the heartland. Transition between the South and the Midwest is a concept of which I am familiar and, frankly, enjoy exploring. In any state, geography wanes and waxes in each cardinal direction, aiding one territory to blend into another. In the case of Three Billboards, I can see the how Smoky Mountain range was borrowed for the resemblance of the Ozark’s. In broad view, Missouri and North Carolina have similar recent headlines shaping their likeness. The pivotal race riots of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri bear discouraging association to recent conflicts like the beating of unarmed Jermaine Rush for jaywalking in Asheville.

Yet with such strong undercurrents of racial tension, Three Billboards would do well not to lump all Southern-ish states together under one widespread assumption. Why should the melancholy, country-fried aesthetic of one area lend itself to the reputation of an area arguably more desolate? After some light research, I learned that the inspiration for Three Billboards came from one family’s experience with investigative neglect in Vidor, Texas. So, a Texas true story takes life in Missouri with North Carolina visuals– for what purpose?

I can’t help but think this is how Hollywood sees us; the ones from Texas, Missouri, North Carolina and surrounding states– you know, because they are all the same in essence. Missouri acted as a mascot for Three Billboards, reappearing on the sleeves of cops and on all campaigns for the film itself. But the Missourian in Three Billboards only interjected ignorance or brazen working-class attitude sparingly. The Missouri motif feels more like a shtick than it does fond representation.

At it’s heart, is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a story for the small-town misunderstood or was its success the industry’s extended hand to those poor folks back East? I see Frances McDormand’s performance as Mildred a testament to the determination and resilience of the tough-as-nails, rough-around-the-edges women in my hometown. While I see her portrayal as brave, did the Academy just recognize bravery for agreeing to depict such miserable-Missouri circumstance?

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was the year’s best indefinite film. Neither comedy nor drama, Three Billboards was a nutty, irresolute vignette about small-town politics and, after some unravelling, the meaning of loss. Accurately sited or not, Three Billboards possesses qualities similar to McDormand’s other Academy Award winning performance in Fargo (1996), both films cultivating settings that become synonymous with their quietly epic stories.

Fargo was filmed, of course, in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area.