It's the sort of urban moment that makes you want to pack up the car and move to Montana: A grown man in a purple shawl and turquoise short-shorts is screaming at the passing cars outside a coffeehouse in Venice, California.

"I'm out here on the front lines, people," he cries. "I'm fighting every day to protect you!"

The guy does an about-face, and everyone takes cover behind giant mugs of vanilla soy latte. Everyone, that is, except Maria Bello.

"Hey," Bello says to him. "I like your look."

You can practically hear his heart skip a beat. "Yeah?" he says. "Took me eight years to put this outfit together."

There's an awkward pause as the guy approaches the table. Bello, 38, is a compact five feet five, but there's this little arched-eyebrow thing she does that tells you not to mess with her. She offers him a cigarette. He takes it and comes back with an over-the-top curtsy. "Shalom," Bello says. "Yeah. Thanks, lady. Salaam alaikum."

Bello is willing to go places that rattle the bejesus out of most people. Not that we didn't know that already. In last year's A History of Violence, there was animal danger in her performance as an all-American housewife who fucks her husband (played by Viggo Mortensen) so hard in one scene that the actress ended up with black-and-blue marks all over her back, hips, and legs. In her caustic new political satire, Thank You for Smoking (based on Christopher Buckley's novel), she plays an alcohol-industry lobbyist. It's that rare film unafraid to take potshots at Hollywood, not to mention Big Tobacco, Bush-era bozos, and sanctimonious liberals. Next she's going to the scariest place of all, with a starring role in Oliver Stone's forthcoming 9/11 movie.

"I've done a lot of work with fear," she acknowledges, biting into a jalapeño potato chip. "Seven or eight years ago, I literally couldn't walk into a room without having a full-on panic attack. Then it hit me: You don't get anywhere if you just curl up. You have to face that shadow side. You have to look it in the eye."