The town of Winthrop, Iowa, a tiny farming nook in the state's northeast corner, has a population of 772. In high school, Michelle Monaghan, now 27, was voted class president, a credential that's diminished slightly by the fact that a majority required just 18 votes. But just because Monaghan is a genuine Iowa farm girl, it doesn't mean she's just some farm girl from Iowa. In next fall's comic noir "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," she'll get her first starring role, playing a fierce, frisky, struggling actress who's wrapped up in a murder. The role includes a brief nude scene and enough four-letter words to scorch a harvest. Monaghan was more than game. "You might be surprised if you go to Iowa," she says. "The Bible belt is a bit further south."

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" also stars Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, two of the most notorious handfuls in Hollywood, and is produced by Joel Silver, who made the "Matrix" films and will never, ever be confused with a shrinking violet. If Monaghan flourished in such a boys' club, it's probably because she made it hard for them to concentrate. Spotting future stars is a notoriously tricky, but her confidence onscreen has us betting big on her. Next year she'll also star, along with George Clooney, in "Syriana," a drama about international oil from the Oscar-winning team behind "Traffic."

Like the small-town girls she plays--she's a pageant winner in "Syriana"--Monaghan itched for a big-city life. To pay tuition while studying journalism in Chicago, she did some catalog modeling and discovered, as so many do, that modeling pays better. Her break came while in Berlin for a bit part in "The Bourne Supremacy," when Silver called to set up a reading with Downey. "She really was a trouper," Silver says. "She flew into L.A., did the reading while the car waited, got back in the car and flew right back to Berlin. But she killed us."

Monaghan is now at a blissfully innocent point in her career. Interviews are still a fun novelty, though she's clearly petrified about saying anything inflammatory. At one point, after her interviewer suggests that in order for her and Downey's character to be high-school classmates, Downey would have to be left back a dozen times, she laughs. "Yeah, there was a lot of hair and makeup involved." She pauses. "To make me look older, I mean." Riiight. Nice try. Monaghan's still new at this game, but she'll have plenty of time to master it.