A dark American thriller about a covert CIA war on Mexican drug gangs starring Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro wowed critics at the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday.
"Sicario" pulls no punches in its depiction of the US war on drugs -- a subject Del Toro said was close to his heart.
"I've done many movies that deal with that part of the world and I'm very sensitive about what's happening on both sides of the border with drugs," Del Toro told reporters after the screening.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve said the script was knocking around for several years before he snapped it up.
"People were afraid of it because the lead was a female character and (the scriptwriter) was asked several times to re-write the part for a man," he said.
- Woman in a man's world -
The role of women has been a dominant theme throughout this year's Cannes festival, but Blunt rejected the idea that her character represented some sort of female empowerment.
"I get asked a lot about playing tough female roles, but I don't really see them as tough," said the British actress, who has become a huge star after roles in "Edge of Tomorrow" and "The Devil Wears Prada".
"There are plenty of strong women out there and I don't think they can be compartmentalised as one thing."
"Sicario" follows a female FBI officer, who gets attached to a shadowy CIA black ops unit working on both sides of the border with Mexico.
The audience shares Blunt character's gradual realisation about the uncomfortable, ends-justifies-the-means nature of the mission, as the tension builds towards a brutal finale.
"I found this character strangely quite damaged and vulnerable and struggling in the role of being a female cop. She's trying to survive in a predominantly male profession," said Blunt.
- 'Blisteringly intense' -
Villeneuve said he had been looking for a script that dealt with the US-Mexico border region for several years.
"We all know how much violence is there. As a North American, I share part of the responsibility for that. For me, the movie is not about Mexico, it's about America," he said.
Villeneuve made his name with the award-winning French-language film "Incendies" before switching to English for 2013's "Prisoners", starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman.
Co-star Josh Brolin, who was in similar border territory in 2007's "No Country for Old Men", plays a CIA officer whose laid-back style brings some light relief to the film. He said that was to balance the "very heavy" subject matter.
"My job in the movie is to be as anti-profound as possible," he said.
Brolin said he initially turned down the role as he was busy with a number of other projects.
"I got lost in the work and was asked to do this film by Dens and I said no, stupidly," he said.
"Emily came round and made me feel appropriately stupid for turning down the role, and thank God (she did)."
Initial reaction from critics was very positive.
Industry magazine Variety called it "a blisteringly intense drug-trade thriller that combines expert action and suspense with another uneasy inquiry into the emotional consequences of violence".
Toronto Star critic Peter Howell said it could even take the top Palme d'Or prize, being awarded on Sunday by a jury led by "No Country for Old Men" directors the Coen brothers.
"The constantly shifting allegiances and feeling on edge -- Villeneuve has become quite the master of suspense," Howell told AFP, comparing the film to Hitchcock classic "North by Northwest".
"It's unusual for the Palme to go for a genre pick," he admitted. "But it's happened before with 'Pulp Fiction' so it's definitely a contender."