Sam Rockwell grapples with race and anger in Three Billboards

As a San Francisco native, Sam Rockwell says he doesn't know why he gets offered roles to play "a lot of rednecks and country guys," but he is taking the opportunity to try to understand complex, unlovable male characters.

Rockwell, 49, who recently played a Klansman and a brutish Texas colonel, currently co-stars as a racist, angry police officer in the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

"I think he is lonely. I think he was probably abused. His father hit him when he was a kid, and he has a weird relationship with his mum," Rockwell told Reuters of his character, Dixon.

"All this adds to a lot of complexity," he added.

Three Billboards, out in cinemas today, stars Frances McDormand as Mildred, a woman on a mission to get the local police in her small Missouri hometown to properly investigate the murder of her daughter.

The film, produced by Fox Searchlight, has already attracted awards buzz and strong critical praise for both McDormand and Rockwell. It recently won four Golden Globes, including Best Drama, Best Actress for McDormand and Best Supporting Actor for Rockwell.

The hardened, foul-mouthed Mildred places questions on three large billboards about the town's police efforts that cause her to clash with law enforcement, particularly Dixon.

"None of these characters live in the black and white. They live in the grey," Rockwell said.

Three Billboards writer and director Martin McDonagh said Dixon isn't a "representation of a thing or an idea or a group".

Furthermore, Dixon is forced to face humility, and he ends the film in an unexpected place.

"If I was just writing a strictly racist brute, then you wouldn't have found the hope or the change or the humanity in him," McDonagh said.

While Three Billboards was first written eight years ago, its exploration of a small, isolated town and a racist police officer has some resonance with present-day racial tensions in America.

McDonagh and Rockwell said they hoped the film sparked conversations around the issue. - REUTERS