Chloe Zhao voiced her excitement about the looming Oscars as her road movie Nomadland topped the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Thursday, winning Best Feature and showing no signs of slowing down its relentless award season charge.
The US feature film – which has accrued dozens of Hollywood prizes and is tipped to win big at Sunday's Academy Awards – also won Best Director, editing and cinematography honours at the ceremony dedicated to films with smaller budgets.
The Spirit Awards, taking place online this year owing to Covid-19, are the penultimate stop on Hollywood's award circuit before the grand finale of the Oscars, which will be held in-person in Los Angeles in three days' time.
"We have a lot of friends nominated this year, and we're really excited to see them ... and we have some surprise guests," said Zhao, who is favourite to become the second-ever female directing winner at the Oscars.
When a moderator suggested those mystery guests might be the real-life nomads who play versions of themselves in Zhao's film, she said: "I can't wait to just hug them. I need to hug somebody!"
The film follows a community of older Americans who roam the West in vans after losing everything in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Collecting her director prize Zhao – who made her name with tiny indie films set in the US heartland – thanked the "independent film community," saying: "We wouldn't be here without you."
Zhao's next film is Eternals, part of the mega-grossing Marvel superhero blockbuster series.
Asked in a virtual Q&A if she would like to return to indie filmmaking later, she replied: "Definitely – I would love to be able to do both if possible.
"The difference? There's a lot more visual effects shots," she said, referring to the Marvel films' lavish, computer-enhanced action sequences.
Carey Mulligan and Riz Ahmed win acting nods
While Nomadland topped the Spirit Awards with four wins from five nominations, its star Frances McDormand missed out to Carey Mulligan of Promising Young Woman, a potential dark horse for the Oscars.
The #MeToo revenge thriller also won for Best Screenplay.
Another Oscar best picture nominee that added some momentum on Thursday was Sound of Metal, in which Riz Ahmed stars as a rock drummer who loses his hearing.
Ahmed won Best Actor, supporting star Paul Raci was also honoured, and the film took Best First Feature for debut director Darius Marder.
South Korean veteran star Youn Yuh-jung confirmed her Supporting Actress favourite status with another win for her eccentric grandmother in immigrant drama Minari.
And Crip Camp became the latest documentary from Barack and Michelle Obama's production house to win at the Spirit Awards, emulating last year's American Factory and boosting its own Oscar hopes.
"First and foremost I want to thank President Obama and Mrs Obama for their belief in us," said Nicole Newnham, co-director of the film about a hippie camp for disabled youths who went on to become leading activists.
The Obamas "actually watched our film multiple times, gave feedback, it was a true partnership ... we really did make this film with them", she added in the virtual "backstage".