Walking onstage at Ryerson Theatre to introduce his new movie, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," Martin McDonagh couldn't help but remember the last time he attended the Toronto International Film Festival.
"It was a 'Midnight Madness' screening of 'Seven Psychopaths,' " the British filmmaker and playwright said, referring to his self-aware crime comedy that premiered at Toronto in 2012. "It was the first and last time we had a full house for that one."
Filling seats shouldn't be a problem for "Three Billboards," which just won the Toronto Film Festival's coveted People's Choice Award, solidifying the movie as a prime contender this awards season.
"Three Billboards" tells the story of an angry, grieving mother (Frances McDormand) who puts up a trio of billboards criticizing Ebbing's police chief (Woody Harrelson) for failing to make any headway in her daughter's rape and murder case months after the crime.
"To me, it fills up to the level of Greek tragedy," McDormand said of the movie at the festival.
That it does. But like McDonagh's other film work, which includes the black comedy crime picture "In Bruges," for which he received an original screenplay Oscar nomination, "Three Billboards" defies expectations at every turn. It's equally adept at making you laugh and cry, and the comedy is perfectly calibrated and grounded in character. The Toronto audience roared its approval and applauded several times during its premiere.
That said, I'm surprised that "The Shape of Water," Guillermo Del Toro's lush movie monster love story, didn't win Toronto's audience award. In fact, it didn't even place. The Tonya Harding biopic, "I Tonya," was the runner-up, with Luca Guadagnino's deeply felt love story "Call Me By Your Name" finishing third.
Del Toro has lived in Toronto for the past several years. "I identify with Canada," Del Toro said at the "Water" premiere. "I identify with Canadian bacon."
The portly director also made a direct pitch to the crowd, telling them to "vote early and often."
The People's Choice Award isn't given by a jury but by audience members dropping their tickets in boxes held by volunteers at the exits. Voting can also be done on phones via the TIFF app.
The math used to calculate the winner is, by admission of TIFF's artistic director Cameron Bailey, "not an exact science."
"It's done on a percentage of the house basis," Bailey told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "If a large percentage of a house votes, say 70%, in any size theater, we consider them equal."
Basically the formula is: Tickets dropped in boxes plus online votes divided by total attendance.
Personally, I have never seen ballot boxes as stuffed as those at the "Shape of Water" premiere, but maybe that was a hallucination brought on by ingesting too many Canadian processed meats.
The good news for "Three Billboards" is that the People's Choice Award stands as a strong bellwether for a film's best picture chances. The last five winners — "La La Land," "Room," "The Imitation Game," "12 Years a Slave" and "Silver Linings Playbook" — have earned nominations with "Slave" joining People's Choice alums "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The King's Speech" as eventual Oscar winners.
It's easy to see "Three Billboards" pulling in several nominations, including picture, original screenplay (the film won the screenplay honor at the Venice Film Festival) and acting nods for McDormand and Sam Rockwell, excellent playing a dimwitted, racist police officer who evolves in an unexpected manner.
Harrelson too has never been better as Ebbing's rightfully beloved police chief, a role that feels like McDonagh tailored it to the veteran actor's soulful charm.
"Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri" opens in limited release Nov. 10.