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A man drives through a bleak, snowy landscape towing a Cutlass Ciera. It's Jerry Lundegaard, a sales manager at an Oldsmobile dealership in Minneapolis. He arrives at a bar in Fargo, North Dakota to meet with two criminals, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud. He's arranged for them to kidnap his wife Jean back in Minnesota in order to extort ransom money from his father-in-law, Wade Gustafson. He promises them a cut of the ransom money—and the brand new Ciera, which he stole from his own company's lot.
It's unclear why Jerry needs the cash, but he plans to take a million dollars in ransom from Wade and leave the kidnappers with only $80,000. A foolproof scheme, yah? Carl and Gaear agree, and visit a couple of prostitutes at a truck stop before heading to Minneapolis.
Jerry almost calls off the plan when Wade seems ready to go in on a real-estate deal with him, but it turns out Wade wasn't really going to let him get in on the deal in a big way. So, the kidnapping goes as planned, with Jerry's terrified wife crashing down the stairs, wrapped in a shower curtain and knocking herself unconscious.
However, things start to go seriously wrong when Carl and Gaear get pulled over by a state trooper on the highway. Gaear shoots the state trooper in the head, and then kills a couple that witnessed the crime while driving by. They abscond with Jean to a lakeside hideout with really bad TV reception.
Enter Marge Gunderson, the movie's heroine and main character. She's the chief of police in Brainerd, Minnesota, near where the bodies of Gaear's victims have been found. She manages to interview the prostitutes who slept with Gaear and Carl, and starts to uncover their trail. She's a nice, cheerful, smart cop. She also happens to be seven months pregnant.
Meanwhile, Jerry's ransom plans are going further awry. Things are starting to close in. Marge, who's following some leads to Minneapolis, gets a lead on a guy who received some phone calls from Gaear and Carl. She shows up at Jerry's dealership to ask him about a missing Ciera reported to be driven by the suspects.
His tough, headstrong father-in-law wants to take more of a role in freeing his daughter from her kidnappers. After listening in on a phone call in which Carl's telling Jerry to bring him the money tonight, Wade rushes out ahead of him, bringing a suitcase with a million dollars to Carl in a parking garage. But Carl's unhappy that Wade's arrived instead of Jerry. When Wade demands to see his daughter, Carl shoots and kills him, but he manages to shoot Carl in the jaw before he dies.
Marge, still on the trail of the Ciera, goes back to interview Jerry again. He freaks out under the pressure of Marge's questioning, and under the pretense of checking the lot for the Ciera, he takes off.
Carl hides the million dollars in the snow, planning on getting it later. He brings back forty thousand for Gaear, who's been watching Jean at their remote cabin hideout. Gaear, annoyed with Jean for being too noisy, has killed her. Carl returns to the hideout, and after an argument about who gets the Ciera, Gaear murders Carl with an ax.
After one of her officers picks up a lead from a local bartender, Marge discovers the criminals' hideout, where Gaear's busy putting Carl's body through a wood chipper. She shoots, injures, and successfully arrests him. Marge just can't understand what motivates people to do these terrible things.
Meanwhile, the cops track Jerry down to a motel where he was trying to flee and drag him out screaming. Cut to Marge and her husband, Norm, peacefully watching TV in bed and happily awaiting the birth of their child. For now, at least, all's right with the world.