She was born in Chicago, Illinois and was the youngest of three children adopted by Canadian parents Vernon (a Disciple of Christ minister) and Noreen McDormand. She spent much of her youth in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania suburb of Monessen, where she graduated from high school. She attended Bethany College, Bethany, West Virginia, where she earned her B.A. in Theater in 1979.
In 1982 she earned an M.F.A. from the Yale University School of Drama. While attending Yale, McDormand roomed with fellow actress and student Holly Hunter.
In 1984 she married director Joel Coen after performing in the Coen Brother movie, Blood Simple, and in 1998 the couple adopted a son from Paraguay, Pedro McDormand Coen.
In 1992, McDormand played Stella Kowalski in a stage production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award.
McDormand has been nominated for Academy Awards three times. In 1988 she was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Mississippi Burning; In 1996 she won the award for Best Actress for her police chief performance in Fargo; and in 2000 she was nominated again for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of a concerned mother in Almost Famous.
Also for Almost Famous she won the Best Supporting Actress nod from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, San Diego Film Critics Society, Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Florida Film Critics Circle. For Wonder Boys in 2001 she won Best Supporting Actress from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Florida Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Frances McDormand is an associate member of the experimental theater company The Wooster Group.
McDormand's credits include: