Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone" won the Grand Jury Prize as best picture at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and took the Best Screenplay prize for the script she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell.

It's fitting recognition for one of the freshest, most original indie films in ages. It's set in the present-day Missouri Ozarks, a rugged rural terrain that facilitates clandestine behavior. Amid makeshift drug labs and generational poverty, it tells a classic Western story transposed to unsettling, unfamiliar territory.

Ree Dolly, 17, is the intrepid hero, tracking her vanished father, a meth cooker who disappeared after signing away the family home as collateral on his bail bond. She faces a thicket of criminality and family conflicts.

Granik was drawn to the project partly through her "compulsive" curiosity about life "in the epicenter of the flyover." At the same time, she and writing partner Rosellini were exhausted by a stack of women's scripts concerning psychiatric illness, cutting and child abuse.

"We were feeling very dreary about female homo sapiens," she said. "It was like, is there no other way a woman can tread this planet? What other lives can be depicted?"

Woodrell's novel featured an "extremely beautiful female protagonist," Granik said. "We liked her so much it was a relief. It was also participating in female fantasy. Both men and women really often are attracted to tomgirls. You are guessing how she's going to handle this guy. Will she cajole him, fight him?"

"Winter's Bone" offers an eye-opening turn by Jennifer Lawrence as Ree. Lawrence gave a promising performance in "The Burning Plain" earlier this year, holding her own against co-stars Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger. Here she emerges as a breakthrough star, much as Carey Mulligan did last year in "An Education." The cast and crew will surely have fittings for formalwear before the 2011 Oscars.

Granik found much visual richness on the film's location. "There were homes where wood-burning stoves are the only source of heat, so you'd have these wisps of smoke," she said. "And wisps are so pro-cinema. The walnut trees, once their leaves are removed, look like human nerves, almost. They're very emo trees."

Local people helped refine the script and rounded out the cast. The little girl who plays Ree's sister, Ashley Thompson, is filmed in her own house with her own toys and trampoline. "She has a great dad, but the texture of her life felt commensurate to what [the novel] was describing," Granik said. "That was the biggest gift of all for this film, that we didn't recreate or fabricate locations. We were able to find daily life details that were synching up with what was written."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186