It plays well as a straightforward thriller but also contains a strong undercurrent of jet-black humor that's never quite outright mean-spirited or completely unpleasant (even though it involves kidnapping, gruesome murders, and dismemberment in a wood chipper). Shot largely on location in North Dakota and Minnesota, Roger Deakins' cinematography captures the bleakness of the weather and the long flat expanses, which atmospherically reflects the state of the characters in the story.
The real standout performance is Frances McDormand as practical and tough policewoman Marge Gunderson, but William H. Macy (as the meek everyman in way over his head with kidnapping and loan fraud schemes), Harve Presnell (as his no-nonsense Midwestern business tycoon father-in-law) and especially Steve Buscemi (as a perpetually nervous and volatile hitman) all contribute fine turns in playing well-defined characters that they can really sink their teeth into.
Dark comedy is one of the most frequently mis-used labels when it comes to describing movies, and one of the toughest forms to pull off. FARGO pulls it off, and does so admirably well. It's certainly one of my favorite films of the past 20 years, and my favorite work by the Coens.