LOS ANGELES - Hilary Swank has carved out a career with original roles in Hollywood, like a transgender man in Boys Don't Cry and an ambitious boxer in Million Dollar Baby, receiving two Oscars for best actress for her derring-do.
Now, the 40-year-old turns the female stereotype of the western genre on its head in The Homesman, directed and co-written by fellow Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones, also her co-star.
"All westerns are really told from a male standpoint, and usually it has something to do with revenge, and usually the women in it are prostitutes or some kind of lesser role," Swank told Reuters ahead of the film's release in American cinemas.
"So I think that this movie really is a feminist movie in so many ways and telling a story in a certain time about kind of our foremothers, really."
The film follows the journey of independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who volunteers to transport three women driven insane by the hardships of pioneer life across the country to a waiting minister who has agreed to shelter them.
A self-sufficient pioneer, she employs the ageing drifter George Briggs, played by Jones, to assist her in the perilous trip across the harsh expanses of the frontier before the Civil War.
The New York Times called The Homesman "both a captivating western and a meticulous, devastating feminist critique of the genre".
Jones, 68, said a friend sent him the original novel by Glendon Swarthout, and he found the kind of material needed to make his second feature after his directing debut in 2005's The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada.
"I certainly thought there was a good movie in there because it would give us a chance to make a screenplay that had some originality to it," said the native Texan, who won a best supporting actor Oscar in 1994 for The Fugitive.
The Homesman may be the only western among this year's critically acclaimed films, but it is also one of the few serving up a meaty lead to a female, along with Reese Witherspoon's role as a woman on a months-long trek in search of herself in the upcoming drama Wild.
"Being a hero and being a good person transcends gender," said Swank. "It's not for any certain gender or any certain person. Anyone can be that."