Dixon and Mildred- three billboards - empathy

Empathy for “bad” characters – Three billboards


It’s not a secret that the main characters of the movie three billboards are not exactly “good people”.

Mildred has humiliated an innocent man in front of his town and his family because he can’t catch the culprit of a crime; Dixon is a man who uses his power as a police officer to torture and beat whoever he wants, and Willoughby is the man who turns the other way when he sees Dixon doing so.

That said, the movie will make you fall in love with those characters. But why?

The secret is empathy, the emotion that allows us to understand another person’s feelings. Those three characters could not be any different from each other, their background, their gender, their age, their personalities… they have nothing in common but one thing: human feelings.

Our shared humanity allow us to comprehend the suffering or the joy of another human being or the character in a story even if he’s different from us. Storytellers and writers use this innate ability we all possess to make us care about the characters in their stories.

Here’s how three billboards does it:

Table of Contents


Mildred three billboards - empathy

She’s a grumpy arrogant woman, she decides to publicly humiliate a man who she knows is dying of cancer and when he’s gone she doesn’t feel the slight remorse.

Objectively her actions sound like something that a detestable Disney villain would do, but once we get to know the reason behind them we immediately reevaluate her character.

She’s a mother who never got the chance to say goodbye to her daughter and she’ll have to live the rest of her life knowing that a member of her family died alone in an atrocious way. Now her only reason to live is to find and punish the man who killed his daughter.

That’s why she doesn’t care too much about Willoughby’s health condition, she doesn’t see life as something to be cherished anymore, as demonstrated by the scene where she’s standing on the top of her billboard on fire.

We empathize with her anger and frustration even if we haven’t lived a similar situation, because we understand where those feelings come from. Her anger originated from the inability to react to injustice. At some point in our lives we’ve all experienced this type of anger, no matter how big or small the injustice we faced, we all know that feeling.

Her grief is something we all dread, going home after work and finding out that one of the people we love most, died for no reason.


Chief Willoughby three billboards - empathy

The chief is a likable character Likable is essentially someone we’d like to have around and someone who possesses qualities we can admire. Willoughby is a good dad, a good husband and he is beloved by his community.

But let’s face it, he’s not an angel. Like many other in the town, he knows that Dixon likes to abuse people he doesn’t like (especially black people), and he has the power to stop him but he doesn’t.

We can empathize with him, and understand the reason behind his suicide because of his fear. He’s terrified of the idea that his family will have to suffer because of his disease, he wants to leave them now that the memory of his has not been distorted by his cancer.

In a story, illness is a very powerful instrument to use for empathy. Everyone can be suddenly affected by a disease. We might not act exactly like Willoughby, but we can understand the reason why he acted that way.

Even though most of us wouldn’t defend Dixon like he does (I definitely wouldn’t), we can see what he’s aiming at. Willoughby has seen in Dixon the potential of a great detective and a good person, so he decides to put up with his bad behaviour hoping that one day it will get better.


John Dixon three bilboards - empathy

He’s the hardest one to empathize with, but even an abusive bully like Dixon is human. One scene on the movie in particular makes us understand his reasons without even using words. Right after being informed of Willoughby’s death, Dixon runs to Welby’s office and violently assaults him.

The action in itself is horrible, but as he acting so violently the music in the background doesn’t change match the tone of the scene. It’s still the sad slow song that was playing when he heard about his friend’s death. The song is what connects Willoughby’s death to the violence, making us understand that he’s expressing his sadness through anger.

Later in the movie, after he has read Willoughby’s letter, we can see that he truly regrets his actions. He tries to apologize to Welby, tries to get the man he suspects to be the murdered of Mildred’s daughter, and in general tries to be less cocky.

The movie gives him the opportunity to redeem himself (only in part) and try to become a better person and a better policeman. He fails to find the real culprit and it’s not clear if he has fully given up on violence, but his actions show us that his sorrow is real.

Even if we’re not violent cops like Dixon, we know what it feels like to feel sorry for hurting someone. That’s what makes us hope that, as Willoughby said in the letter, Dixon will change and focus on helping people like a good cop should do.

Ultimately the movie gives him the opportunity to redeem himself (only in part) by listening to his old friend’s advice and try to become a better person and a better policeman.


Three billboards outside Ebbing Missouri is a movie built on empathy, the best thing about it is that it challenges the audience’s ability to empathize.

It introduces us to characters who live inside the “grey area” of human emotions, not bad enough to be villains and not good enough to be heroes. Like this, it makes us question our own principles, to take into consideration the emotions that the character are feeling, not just their actions.

Through empathy, the movie makes us see its character as humans.