PARK CITY, Utah — The Oscars aren't until Feb. 26, but next year's awards already have their first major contender.

Period drama Mudbound was rapturously received at the recently ended Sundance Film Festival, where its world premiere was greeted with two standing ovations as the credits rolled and director Dee Rees took the stage. Featuring a star-studded cast led by Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige and Jason Clarke, the post-World War II epic follows two families grappling with racism, forbidden love and the effects of combat in rural Mississippi.

"I saw this as being a story of two families with amazing women," Rees said. "Basically, I wanted to juxtapose the battle at home vs. the battle abroad, with the battle at home sometimes being even bloodier than the battle abroad."

Netflix has acquired Mudbound for $12.5 million, the biggest deal at this year's festival.

Festival-goers took to Twitter swiftly after the first screening with glowing reviews, calling the film "astounding," "brutal" and "pure cinema." In Sundance tradition, many were quick to dub Mudbound the starting pistol to the 2018 Oscar race, while others saw similarities to the ecstatic response The Birth of A Nation received last year, before the drama fell out of favor in light of filmmaker Nate Parker's resurfaced rape allegations (he was tried and acquitted in 2001).

But just how big of a contender could Mudbound be? If its slow-building pace and understated storytelling aren't turnoffs for voters, it could very well land Oscar nominations for best picture, cinematography and adapted screenplay. (It's based on Hillary Jordan's 2008 novel.) A best director nod would be monumental for budding filmmaker Rees (Pariah), who could become the first black woman nominated in the category and only the fifth woman in history. The last nominee was Kathryn Bigelow for 2009's The Hurt Locker, the first and only woman to win the directing Oscar.

Across acting categories, the drama has no shortage of possibilities with its stacked ensemble of veterans and newcomers. The previously nominated Mulligan could eke out a nod for her unflinching turn as a disgruntled housewife, as could Hedlund, who does career-best work as a hard-drinking veteran who stands up to Ku Klux Klan brutality. More likely nominees are R&B singer Blige  — nuanced in her first big-screen dramatic role as a shrewd mother and midwife — and Straight Outta Compton's Jason Mitchell, whose performance as a returning soldier assailed by racial discrimination and violence is gut-wrenching.

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