Chloe Zhao's film became an Oscar frontrunner winning the top prize at both Venice and Toronto
The pandemic-delayed Oscars are still seven months away, but Frances McDormand's Nomadland cemented its early frontrunner status by bagging the Toronto film festival's top prize Sunday.
The movie about a community of elderly, nomadic idealists who roam across America in worn-out vans had already won Venice's Golden Lion last weekend for star-and-producer McDormand and Chinese-born director Chloe Zhao.
It has now added the People's Choice Award voted for by audiences in Toronto -- North America's biggest film festival -- which is considered a useful early Oscars bellwether.
The film -- an ode to American wanderlust and the highs and lows of the open road -- has stood out in a sparse year so far, with many top productions halted and theatrical releases delayed due to Covid-19.
The Academy Awards have been pushed back two months to April 25, partly to allow more movies a chance to compete.
Nomadland beat out Toronto's first runner-up One Night in Miami, an adaptation by Regina King (Watchmen) of a play imagining a heated 1964 motel room conversation involving Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, singer and activist Sam Cooke and NFL star Jim Brown.
The Toronto People's Choice Award, determined entirely by the votes of festival attendees, has a fairly strong history of predicting Oscars success.
The last eight winners were all nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, with two of those winning the Oscar, including 2019's surprise victor Green Book.
12 Years a Slave (2013), The King's Speech (2010) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) all began their journeys to Oscar glory with the Toronto prize.
Nomadland earned rave reviews from critics after its world premiere in Venice, which was followed hours later by drive-in screenings in Toronto and Southern California.
The Hollywood Reporter called it "a unique portrait of outsider existence," while Variety termed it a "tender ode to American independence."
Nomadland comes from the same studio -- Searchlight -- as last year's Toronto winner Jojo Rabbit.
That Nazi satire went on to win best adapted screenplay at the Oscars, but was beaten to the top prize by South Korean juggernaut Parasite.
The Toronto International Film Festival took place mainly online this year, along with a handful of drive-in and limited-capacity indoor screenings.
At a virtual gala earlier this week it handed career achievement awards to fast-rising Zhao -- who will oversee next year's Marvel superhero epic Eternals -- as well as Anthony Hopkins and Kate Winslet.