Born the daughter of an Illinois minister on June 23, 1957, Frances McDormand attended West Virginia's Bethany College and later studied acting at the prestigious Yale Drama School. After her graduation, McDormand could be seen gaining professional experience in numerous stage productions across the country. In 1984, McDormand made her film debut playing a somewhat dim-witted adulterous wife in the Coen brothers' Blood Simple, thus beginning an association that would culminate in her marriage to director Joel Coen. Despite winning critical acclaim for her performance, it would be four years, save for a cameo in the Coens' Raising Arizona (1987) and various small roles, before she would be featured in another major film production. In the meantime, McDormand's stage career flourished, and she received a Tony nomination for the 1987 Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. She also did periodic television work, co-starring on the short-lived detective drama Legwork (1987) and appearing in a recurring role on Hill Street Blues.
In 1988, McDormand found her way back into the Hollywood spotlight, and won an Oscar nomination for her role as a Klan wife who testifies against a good ol' boy sheriff in Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning. Her film career picked up significantly afterwards, and led to appearances in a wide variety of well-wrought dramas, including Ken Loach's controversial Hidden Agenda (1990), which featured the actress one of a group of American attorneys working to improve prisoner rights throughout a war-torn Ireland. 1990 would also find her playing a small role in the Coens' Miller's Crossing, which led to a similar performance in Robert Altman's Short Cuts. In 1996, McDormand won a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of sheriff Marge Gunderson in Fargo, yet another Coen brothers film. The following year, she co-starred as a German doctor in Bruce Beresford's WWII drama Paradise Road, and then tried her hand at children's films with a starring role in Madeline (1998).
In 2000, McDormand made memorable supporting appearances in two films. First was the part of an adulterous academic wife in Curtis Hanson's overlooked Wonder Boys; late that year she could be seen playing the well-meaning, yet unarguably overprotective mother in Cameron Crowe's critically successful coming-of-age drama Almost Famous. The latter would net her another Supporting Actress nomination. In 2001, McDormand could be seen playing a camped-out version of a film noir lush in the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There. Her subsequent role in 2002's Laurel Canyon -- as an aging, wild-child record producer -- earned her critical hosannas, even if the film was little-seen. The issue picture North Country offered her the challenge of playing a working-class woman gradually succumbing to Lou Gehrig's disease, and in early 2006, earned her another Best Supporting Actress nomination. She followed it up with an acid-tongued role in the ensemble comedy-drama Friends With Money.
Over the next several years, McDormand would continue to appear in several acclaimed films, including Burn After Reading, This Must Be the Place, and Moonrise Kingdom.