By Chris Lee
Updated April 22, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
''What? No Clint Eastwood for Best Director of American Sniper ! I am taking an empty chair to the screening tomorrow in protest!''— charris9876
Credit: Keith Bernstein

Clint Eastwood came to Vegas Wednesday for a kind of congratulatory back slap but ended up talking tough before a ballroom full of movie theater conventioneers.

Feted with CinemaCon’s “Legend of Cinema Luncheon: A Salute to Clint Eastwood,” he was honored for his enormous body of work as both an actor and filmmaker but with a specific nod to American Sniper, 2014’s highest-grossing domestic release and the most successful movie in Eastwood’s long and varied filmography.

In a wide-ranging Q&A session, the star reminisced about the first movie that made a lasting impression on him—Howard Hawks’ 1941 war biopic Sergeant York—about slogging through TV parts en route to his big break Rawhide in 1959 and directors such as Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) and Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) who influenced him. Eastwood also shed light on his approach to acting and what compelled him to occupy the director’s chair: control. “You’re painting the picture, not just holding the brush,” Eastwood said.

Asked what he thought American Sniper “tapped into” in order to connect with such a wide global audience, however, the filmmaker grew philosophical. “It was marketed really well,” Eastwood said from the stage, sounding more than a little bemused. “The right people complained about it.”

He was of course referring a notorious tweet by the liberal firebrand Michael Moore criticizing American Sniper, a tweet that started what was perceived as a war of words between Moore and Eastwood. And although Eastwood initially seemed to shrug off Moore’s criticism, evincing an “everybody has a right to their own opinions” ethos, he made clear certain feelings that have remained publicly unarticulated until now.

“Everyone keeps saying I threatened to kill Michael Moore,” Eastwood said. “That isn’t true.” He waited a beat before adding: “It isn’t a bad idea.”

In his own soft-spoken way, Eastwood went on to take issue with how Moore had conducted a kind of ambush interview of Charlton Heston, showing up unannounced at the aging actor’s home in Moore’s 2002 gun violence documentary Bowling for Columbine. Eastwood fantasized about what would happen if Moore did the same to him. “I thought, ‘Well, if he’s on your property, I guess you could shoot him,” Eastwood said, adding as a shout-out to his own curmudgeonly home owner character in 2008’s Gran Torino: “The old ‘Get off my lawn’ line.”

He wrapped up his thoughts on the issue on a more magnanimous note. “That’s what’s great about this country,” Eastwood said. “You can think whatever you want.”