January 07, 2018 at 10:31 PM EST

The Shape of Water has pooled in the winner’s circle for its acclaimed director, Guillermo del Toro.

The Mexican filmmaker claimed his first Golden Globe victory at Sunday night’s ceremony, taking the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s best director honor over fellow industry mainstays Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Ridley Scott (All the Money in the World), and Steven Spielberg (The Post).

“Since childhood I’ve been faithful to monsters — I have been saved and absolved by them. Because monsters, I believe, are patron saints of our blissful imperfection,” he said in an emotional acceptance speech, at one point waving away the music attempting to play him off.

“For 25 years I have handcrafted very strange little tales, made of motion, color, life, and shadow. And in many of these instances — in three precise instances — these strange stories, these fables have saved my life,” he added, citing his films The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Shape of Water. 

Touted by critics as one of the Pan’s Labyrinth director’s finest works (as well as one of the best films of 2017) out of the fall festival circuit, The Shape of Water follows a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) who forms a romantic bond with a mysterious, humanoid sea creature against the backdrop of Cold War-era Baltimore. The film’s performances (Hawkins has cemented herself firmly at the center of the best actress race), expansive production design, and sweeping score by Alexandre Desplat have earned respective praise on the Oscar trail thus far, all coming together under the supervision of del Toro’s visionary command.

“The thing that I did very different from ever before is that I finally exhaled,” he previously told EW of his approach to the ambitious project. “I finally was able to consider films lyrically. I wanted you to come out of the [theater] humming the movie. Not the music of the movie. Humming the movie.”

And the movie industry listened, as The Shape of Water has become an increasingly weighty player at the Academy Awards precursors, scoring seven total Golden Globe nominations, a Writers Guild of America nod, a spot among the Critics Choice Awards’ best film nominees, and the top prize at the Venice Film Festival — likely thanks to its universal message of compassion during a contentious political climate.

“The movie is about listening and looking and about love because that’s what is really urgent that we say: Do not fear the other, do not believe the ideologies they’re feeding you,” del Toro said. “Do not reduce a person to one word, see the other person, listen. Because the antidote to hatred is understanding.”

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