Comparisons to other films are inevitable, so perhaps it should be no surprise that "Nurse Betty" is being likened to the acclaimed 1996 Oscar-winner "Fargo" — though generally quite favorably.

There's a similar odd and dark sensibility that also runs like an undercurrent through always provocative filmmaker Neil LaBute's latest, including a proclivity for horrifying violence in moments when you least expect it. But that's where the similarities between the two movies end.

Truth be told, this dark comedy is its own beast, one more preoccupied with skewering celebrity and the nature of fame than with parodying small-town life.

And though it is very dark in terms of some of the content, it's surely LaBute's most personable, likable film — one that may help him finally shake the misogyny rap that's been dogging him because of the themes of his early films (the disturbing "In the Company of Men" and the only-slightly-less-disturbing "Your Friends & Neighbors").

A major reason for that is that LaBute is working with a premise (scripted by two other writers) that revolves around a female character for a change. That character is Betty Sizemore (Renee Zellweger, in possibly her best big-screen performance to date), a waitress in a small Kansas town.

This humble soap-opera addict is married to Del (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart), a womanizing car dealer who may be involved in even worse things. The evidence arrives when Del is confronted by soft-spoken hitman Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and his quick-to-temper, partner-in-training Wesley (Chris Rock).

Del tries to talk his way out of the predicament but instead angers Wesley, who winds up killing the smooth-talker. The only witness to the crime? Betty, who was hiding in the bedroom but who is so shocked by the deed that she seems to be in a daze.

In fact, Betty is so traumatized that she flees to Hollywood, believing that she's a character out of her favorite soap opera, "A Reason to Love." She even gets a job as a nurse in a hospital, believing that her favorite character from the series, Dr. David Ravell, works there.

Needless to say, she's in for a bit of a rude awakening when she finally meets up with the actor who plays the character, smug George McCord (Greg Kinnear). Or so you'd think. Instead, he thinks she's auditioning for the program and tries to get her an acting gig.

In the meantime, the two hitmen are in hot pursuit, having discovered that Betty has fled the state. But the obviously smitten Charlie has a hard time believing that his next target could really have any connection to Betty's late husband's shady dealings.

LaBute has always been a director who can coax great performances out of his cast, and one who values dialogue readings as a premium. But here, he shows he's an actual filmmaker, one capable of establishing pacing and constructing something that doesn't look like a filmed stage play.

At least part of the credit for that should go to veteran cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier, who expands LaBute's photographic scope (gone are the static head shots that became LaBute's unfortunate signature).

And then there's the cast, maybe the best he's worked with yet. As the sweet-natured Betty, Zellweger finally lives up to her potential and gives what is perhaps the strongest performance by an actress this year. But her co-stars are nearly as good.

In particular, Freeman is terrific and brings depth to what could have been an underdeveloped character. Kinnear and Rock also bounce back from recent disappointments with better-than-expected performances.

"Nurse Betty" is rated R for strong profanity, violence (gunplay and torture), graphic gore, crude humor and slang references, brief simulated sex and scattered use of racial epithets. Running time: 112 minutes.