Just about every formidable movie actor eventually plays a detective. That doesn't mean it's easy.

"It was one of the biggest challenges I've ever been slapped with," said Kate Winslet, who gets her turn at carrying a badge in "Mare of Easttown," a gripping new miniseries debuting Sunday on HBO. "She's nothing like me. That's pretty scary in a great way if you're an actor like me who likes to feel terrified and exposed."

Her character, Sgt. Mare Sheehan, seems to know everyone in her small Pennsylvania town. That's a blessing when it comes to resolving nuisance calls, a curse when trying to unwind over endless Rolling Rocks at the local tavern.

The day-to-day routine gets broken up after a teenage mother is found murdered in the woods, a case that may be tied to the disappearance of another girl years earlier. If that wasn't enough to justify Sheehan's drinking habit, she's also dealing with the suicide of her oldest child, a custody battle that may mean giving up her grandson and news that her ex is getting remarried.

That may not sound as daunting as being on the Titanic, but Winslet makes you feel like Sheehan is trapped on a sinking ship.

To prepare for the role, Winslet spent time with two police departments, watched lots of crime footage on YouTube and was coached by a real-life officer who ordered her to ignore everything she picked up from watching "Law & Order."

"She would come up to me after a scene and say, 'Mmm, no, that's what they do on TV. Don't do that,' " Winslet told reporters during a news conference earlier this year. "I'd get so obsessed with putting handcuffs on correctly and she'd be like, 'Sometimes it can be messy. Don't worry if it's not exactly perfect all the time.' So that's how I worked through it. Observing real people and working with real people."

The local accent also proved to be tricky.

"It was one of the only two dialects in my life that has actually made me throw things," she sad. "The other one was the dialect in that movie about Steve Jobs. Both times, I was like, 'Omigod, I can't do it! They're going to fire me!' "

Unlikely. She remains one of the most reliable talents in the business with seven Oscar nominations, including a win for 2008's "The Reader." She also picked up an Emmy playing the tile character in 2011's "Mildred Pierce," her last significant role for television.

Winslet failed to earn any major hardware for her latest big-screen role in "Ammonite," currently available on Hulu, but still drew rave reviews for her ability to reveal so much through body language.

That dedication is on display throughout "Mare." This includes the way she tries to mask an ankle injury when receiving an award for some winning basketball shot she made a zillion years ago or how she cracks open a bottle of Cheez Whiz with her teeth.

The whodunit isn't very compelling. The real suspense comes from waiting for Winslet to peel the next layer off her deeply depressed character.

"No matter how much experience I've had, maintaining that sort of high standard of work ethic and integrity is really important to me," Winslet said. "I think audiences need to be respected. If it weren't for them, none of us would have a job. When it's television, you're going right into somebody's home and entertaining them in their front room. You have to honor that place and you have to deliver."

Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 •

Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin