Joel Coen had Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch conceive a back-story for their characters to get the feel of them. They decided that Norm and Marge met while working on the police force, and when they were married, they had to choose which one had to quit. Since Marge was a better officer, Norm quit and took up painting.
William H. Macy begged the directors for the role of Jerry Lundegaard. He did two readings for the part, and became convinced he was the best man for the role. When the Coens didn't get back to him, he flew to New York (where they were starting production) and said, "I'm very, very worried that you are going to screw up this movie by giving this role to somebody else. It's my role, and I'll shoot your dogs if you don't give it to me." He was joking, of course.
Filming took place in the winter of 1995, when the region was experiencing its second-warmest winter in 100 years. Filming of outdoor scenes had to be moved all over Minnesota, North Dakota, and Canada, and much of the snow was artificial.
William H. Macy stated in an interview that, despite evidence to the contrary, he did hardly any ad-libbing at all. Most of his character's stuttering mannerisms were written in the script exactly the way he does them in the film.
While first screening the film, Gene Siskel leaned over to fellow critic and co-host Roger Ebert and said with a smile "this is why we love movies." Siskel & Ebert went on to name it the best film of 1996.
Frances McDormand wore a "pregnancy pillow" filled with birdseed to simulate her pregnant belly. She says that she didn't deliberately try to move in a "pregnant" way, it simply came as a natural response to keeping the extra weight balanced.
Frances McDormand, looking around for a role as a killer or prostitute, was hesitant to play a pregnant cop. "When I started working on it I realized it was one of the best gifts that I've ever been given."
Jerry Lundegaard was named after film critic Bob Lundegaard. When Bob saw the film at a screening with the Coen Brothers present, Bob jokingly said to them "You'll be seeing my lawyers in the morning."
J. Todd Anderson, a storyboard artist who regularly works with the Coen brothers, also plays one of the murder victims, but is credited as O(+> in the credits, similar to the symbol Prince used at the time. This may be a reference to the fact that Prince, like the Coen brothers, was born in Minnesota.
The duck paintings briefly shown in the Gunderson home were painted by "those Hautmanns," who are close friends of the Coen brothers. These three brothers frequently win federal and state wildlife stamp competitions.
Approaching Brainerd from the south, you see a statue of Paul Bunyan with a sign reading "Welcome to Brainerd." In reality, Brainerd has no such statue. Paul Bunyan Amusement Park, located just outside Brainerd, had a huge statue of Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. The park is now at 'This Old Farm,' between Brainerd and Garrison.
In the kidnappers' cabin, Bruce Campbell can be seen on the fuzzy TV screen. Bruce Campbell was in the Coen Brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and has been in various films by Coen buddy Sam Raimi. The footage was not shot for this film, but was actually old footage of an early-1980s Detroit-produced soap opera called "Generations" in which Campbell appeared.
When Jerry is first seen talking to the man from GMAC on his office phone, the scene was set up with the vertical blinds in his office windows open to give the appearance that Jerry is in a jail cell due to the scam he is obviously putting out to GMAC over the fake sales invoices which constitutes as finance fraud and embezzlement.
Bruce Paltrow and Robert Palm wrote a 1997 pilot for a TV adaptation featuring Marge Gunderson and Officer Lou, but it was not picked up as a series. It wound up as a TV movie, Fargo (2003). The movie eventually made it as a series as Fargo (2014) by Noah Hawley, which was inspired by the film but did not include any of the same characters.
The morning talk show hosts on the TV right before Mrs. Lundegaard is kidnapped were actual Minnesota morning talk show hosts for many years during the 80s and early 90s. They hosted a show called "Good Company".
The item on the buffet line that Marge Gunderson skips is lutefisk, which is dried whitefish, cod or ling, that has been soaked in lye. It has a gelatinous texture and by all accounts, is an acquired taste, in part due to its smell. Madison, Minnesota claims to have the highest lutefisk consumption in the U.S., higher than in Scandanavia.
The character on the phone from GMAC speaking to Jerry Lundergard is named "Riley Dieffenbach". "Riley" and "Dieffenbach" are the names of two of the members of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1963 John Frankenheimer film, "Seven Days in May".
When Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) character calls Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) for the deal to be done, he tells him, "Thirty minutes, and we'll wrap this up." From that moment, the film's running time left is exactly 30 minutes.
The reference to "Midwest Federal... talk to ol' Bill Diehl" is a nod to film critic Bill Diehl, who wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch and interviewed the Coen Brothers shortly after the release of Blood Simple. (1984) Midwest Federal Savings was part of the savings and loan crisis, and folded--largely as the result of bad real estate investments--in 1989, two years after the story takes place. The Midwest Federal Building, the S&L's Minneapolis headquarters, was used for exterior shots of the building in which WJM was located on Mary Tyler Moore (1970).
In the closing credits, the theatrical release credited the symbol "O(+>" as portraying the character "Victim In the Field" as a joke. This character is now listed in the film's cast as J. Todd Anderson, a storyboard artist who portrayed a victim found in the field.
Early in the movie Wade is watching a University of Minnesota hockey game. At one point an announcer can be heard saying "goal by Ranheim" and the TV shows the Gophers playing Wisconsin. The goal scorer would be Paul Ranheim, who scored 88 goals for Wisconsin from 1984 to 1988 and later played in the National Hockey League with Calgary, Hartford/Carolina, Philadelphia, and Phoenix.
Steve Buscemi's character uses a line "The old in out" when he's watching Jose Feliciano with the prostitute. That line is a reference to Malcom McDowell and the movie "A Clockwork Orange". Mcdowell uses that line in the movie as correlation to sex.
The buffet-style restaurant in Brainerd is located just east of the Twin Cities. Tinucci's restaurant in Newport, MN was used for the buffet scene. Only minor changes to the interior were made during filming, and many of the decorations (paintings, the metal ship wall hanging) were already in the restaurant and are still present in the dining room today.
At the hideout towards the end, Grimsrud is watching a soap opera on TV featuring Bruce Campbell. When Grimsrud mentions to Carl that they are supposed to split the Ciera, Carl raves, "How the fuck do you split a car, ya dummy? With a fuckin' chainsaw?" The movie takes place in 1987, the same year that Evil Dead II (1987), starring Bruce Campbell--and a chainsaw--was released.
In the scene with a police officer interviewing a bartender about his report of a funny-looking guy out at White Bear lake, they are both wearing heavy parkas with hoods pulled up concealing their faces. In reality, if it was warm enough to have snow melt running down the street, residents would maybe have on a ball cap with their jackets open.
Joel Coen: [Stanley Kubrick] Carl says he's in town for "just a little of the ol' in-and-out," a reference to A Clockwork Orange (1971). When Carl and Gaear are driving outside Minneapolis, the song 'These Boots are Made for Walkin' can be heard on the radio, a reference to Full Metal Jacket (1987), which features the same song. Some shots during the kidnapping, such as breaking the door down, are a tribute to The Shining (1980).
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The film is not actually "Based on a true story". Joel Coen & Ethan Coen later admitted that they added that disclaimer so the viewer would be more willing to suspend disbelief in the story. (An urban legend even says that people have gone to search Minnesota for the briefcase of money, and come to a bad end.) While the specific crimes in the movie didn't happen, the plot has elements of two well-known Minnesota crimes. In 1962, a St. Paul attorney named Eugene Thompson hired someone to kill his wife, Carol. Unbeknownst to Thompson, his man hired someone else to do the job. The second man fatally wounded Mrs. Thomspon in her house, but she managed to escape him. She went to a neighbor's house for help while her assailant fled the scene. The sloppiness and brutality of the crime attracted great attention. The murderers were quickly caught and gave up Thompson, who denied knowing anything about the crime for many years afterward. In 1972, Virginia Piper, the wife of a wealthy Orono banker, was kidnapped. A million-dollar ransom was paid, one of the largest in U.S. history. Mrs. Piper was found tied to a tree in a state park. Two men were convicted of the crime, but were acquitted after a re-trial. One of them later went on a shooting spree after his wife left him, killing her, their 5-year-old son, her son from a previous marriage, her new boyfriend, and one of his sons. Only $4,000 of the money was ever recovered.
Despite hints to the contrary at the time of the film's release and in the closing credits, Prince does not play the Victim in the Field; this is J. Todd Anderson, who was actually a storyboard artist on the film. This was yet another Coen Brothers in-joke, since Prince was a famous native of Minneapolis, Minnesota. To further muddle matters, this moment in the film was memorialized in a "Snow-Globe" promotion included with a special edition version of the DVD, subtly hinting that the dead victim in the snow was a famous cameo.
One of the more sensational elements of the story was in fact "based on a true story": a man who disposed of his wife's body via a woodchipper. However, the murder did not involve a botched kidnapping and took place in New England rather than North Dakota.
Near the end of the movie when the sheriff is shooting at Gaear Grimsrud on the frozen lake, he is wearing Canadian armed forces winter warfare snow boots, which must have picked up at a surplus store. When he falls down after being shot, it's possible to see the price of the boots on the sole, written with a felt-tip pen.
Although it does not feature any of the same characters as the movie, the first season of the television series Fargo (2014), reveals what happened to the nearly $1 million Carl Showalter buried by the highway in the film.