She won best actress Sunday night for her performance in "Nomadland," which also nabbed best picture. As a producer on the movie, she collected a trophy as well.
McDormand kissed her director-husband, Joel Coen, and rose from their table inside Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to make her way to the stage for one of the shortest speeches of the night.
"I have no words," she said. "My voice is in my sword. We know the sword is our work and I like work. Thank you for knowing that and thanks for this."
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McDormand now has three best-actress Oscars. She won in 2018 for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and had her trophy briefly stolen during the post-show Governors Ball. It was quickly recovered. Her first Oscar came in 1996 for "Fargo."
The film, which is based on a 2017 book by Jessica Bruder, tells the story of a laid-off widow on a journey to survive and search for her purpose. Her character, Fern, meets up with a community of drifters as she makes her way across the American West, working odd jobs while living out of her van.
"As Fern, I 'worked' alongside the actual workforce at an Amazon fulfillment center, a sugar beet harvesting plant, in the cafeteria of a tourist attraction and as a camp host in a National Park," McDormand said in production notes distributed by Searchlight Pictures.
She continued: "In most cases, I was not recognized as anyone other than another worker. Of course, I did not really work the hours that are required at these jobs. But we did try to give the impression of real work and its consequences: the physical challenges and discomfort for an older person but also the joy of working and living in nature as a camp host and the feeling of purpose and the income available from all these jobs."
McDormand, who optioned Bruder's book with Peter Spears in 2017 and is credited as a producer on the film, worked with Zhao to build out and personalize the Ford Econoline van that serves as Fern's home in the film.
"We were thinking: how would Fern structure the living space?" Zhao explained. "When you live in that small a space, what you take with you says a lot about who you are, more than when you live in a house."
With more than 50 films to her credit, McDormand is one of the most acclaimed actors of her generation. A win this year would mark McDormand's third Academy Award. She previously won for playing a small-town sheriff in "Fargo" in 2018 for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
"Nomadland" won four prizes, including best picture, at the British Academy Film Awards, earlier this month, as well as the top award at the 32nd annual Producers Guild of America Awards. Zhao took top honors at the 73rd annual Directors Guild Association Awards. It also won best drama film at the Golden Globes.
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