First-time director Rob Marshall won the Director's Guild of America (DGA) award on Saturday for his musical Chicago.
Marshall had just 60 days to film Chicago
He defeated veteran directors Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski who had both been tipped to triumph.
The win makes Marshall the favourite in the battle for Oscar glory later this month.
Marshall, 42, described his win as "overwhelming". "This is something I didn't quite expect," he said.
Asked where he was going to place the trophy, the former Broadway choreographer replied: "I'm going to have to get another apartment in New York. It's huge!"
Marshall won for his movie Chicago, a big screen version of the stage musical.
He had a mere 60 days and a relatively small budget of $45m to direct Chicago - his first ever feature film.
The film leads this year's Oscar contenders with 13 nominations, including best picture.
Although his work on Gangs of New York lost to Marshall, Scorsese came away with a lifetime achievement honour from the guild for a career spanning three decades.
Scorsese, 60, has never won the guild prize although he was previously nominated for the 1976 drama Taxi Driver, 1980's Raging Bull, 1990's GoodFellas and the 1993 movie The Age of Innocence.
Other DGA nominees this year included Polanski for The Pianist, Stephen Daldry for The Hours and Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
All but Jackson are up for best director at the upcoming Oscar ceremony on 23 March, along with Talk to Her filmmaker Pedro Almodovar.