Karen Valby
April 12, 2013 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Sandra Bullock will always remember Melissa McCarthy exploding onto the scene, or rather into the sink, in 2011’s Bridesmaids. ”You’d seen nothing like it,” says the Oscar winner. ”I watched her and thought, ‘I would have an amazing time with that energy.”’

Cut to last spring, when Bridesmaids director Paul Feig was flipping through a female buddy-cop script by Parks and Recreation writer Katie Dippold. The producers were pursuing Bullock for the role of Ashburn, a gifted FBI agent whose rigidity turns off her colleagues, but they hadn’t yet settled on the perfect Mullins, the brash Boston street cop who is the sailor-mouthed yin to her partner’s creased yang. ”Ten pages into the script I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is Melissa!”’ says Feig. ”Then of course the script was 10 times funnier hearing everything in her voice.”

There was a problem, though: McCarthy was in Atlanta shooting Identity Thief and due back on the set of CBS’ Mike & Molly in a few short weeks. ”Literally everyone from agents on down was saying, ‘It can’t happen, just forget about it, she doesn’t have the time,”’ says Feig. But McCarthy thought otherwise. ”Once I read the script and I knew Paul was doing it,” she says, ”I kinda was already in. And then they said, ‘Sandy,’ and I was like, ‘For the love of God, there’s basically no way to turn that down.”’

So Feig and Bullock traveled to Atlanta for one day of rehearsal, and while McCarthy’s two daughters, Vivian, 5, and Georgette, 3, played with Bullock’s son, Louis, 3, the costars met for the first time and dug into the script. ”I was so nervous,” says Feig. ”On paper you think, ‘Sandy and Melissa — brilliant!’ But you never know if it’s going to be a disaster. But they immediately bonded over being moms and I left there going, ‘Oh, thank God. It works.”’

To craft Mullins’ look, McCarthy took inspiration from old-school female rappers like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte for her tough, utilitarian wardrobe. Then she found the perfect stringy mop of brown hair in an Atlanta wig shop. ”We put it on and I was like, ‘This is Mullins,”’ she says. She wrapped Identity Thief at midnight and within hours was in Boston shooting The Heat. The pace soon accelerated as production resumed on her L.A.-based sitcom and she shuttled between the two cities. ”I’d shoot 30 hours of The Heat on the weekend and then go shoot all of Mike & Molly during the week,” says McCarthy. ”I was blind tired, crazy, and I’d do it again in a minute.”

The project appealed to everyone because it turns a traditional genre on its head. Dippold was initially inspired by the buddy-cop comedy Running Scared, which includes a montage of hot babes riding on the back of Billy Crystal’s and Gregory Hines’ scooters. ”[Dippold said to me,] ‘Why can’t the women be in the front?”’ says Feig. ”I just like the idea of the problems of two professional women who love their careers,” he adds, ”and aren’t looking for a man or looking to be married or looking to be saved.” Feig wanted Dippold on set throughout, as well as some Bridesmaids joke writers he brought in to punch up lines on the fly, but he welcomed improvisation, in particular during a drunken bar scene in which McCarthy fishes a cocktail peanut out of Bullock’s nose and tapes forks to her fingers. ”The first week I was like, ‘What the hell is going on here?”’ says Bullock. ”’Right here in the script it says we need to execute this‘ and then everyone’s just making up stuff. Paul came in every morning with these little Post-its on his fingers. I go, ‘What the f— are you doing?’ And he’s like, ‘I’m giving new jokes.’ And I go, ‘Well, then, can I have some f—ing Post-its?”’

All kidding aside, the movie’s success will hinge on the chemistry between its two stars. ”At the end of the day, we made what I feel is the greatest love story I’ve ever done,” says Bullock, whose son had a playdate at McCarthy’s house the weekend of this interview. ”We’ve either sacrificed any credibility we’ve built up and are never going to work again or we’re going to be doing a bunch of sequels. Either way, we’re willing to lose the rest of our careers for this.”

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