The last instalment of the Rings trilogy also garnered the best director Globe for New Zealand's Peter Jackson, as well as two awards for best original score and best original song.

While the Golden Globes, Hollywood's biggest party of the year, may not carry the same weight as the Academy Awards, the Rings victory helps set the film up for a potentially historic Oscar win.

A fantasy has never won an Oscar and neither the Globes nor Oscar voters have ever rewarded one of a series of films.

The Civil War epic Cold Mountain, which had led the field of nominations with eight nods, could manage only one award on the night with a best supporting actress Globe for Renee Zellweger.

The other big winner was the bittersweet romance Lost in Translation which took home the best comedy or musical prize and also garnered a Golden Globe for its star, veteran comic Bill Murray, and a best screenplay award for director Sofia Coppola.

Success for Jackson

Jackson (L) has seen his bold
gamble pay off spectacularly

The success of The Return of the King was the payoff for a bold cinematic gamble that saw Jackson shoot all three Rings films at the same time.

Jackson apologised for his slightly unkempt appearance among the star-studded, designer-dress wearing audience.

"I think I dropped the standard on the red carpet coming in," he said. "I didn't realise that seven years on this movie would end up turning me into a hobbit."

As well as Cold Mountain, the Rings movie had to see off strong challenges from the crime thriller Mystic River, the seafaring epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and the horse-racing drama Seabiscuit.

Penn, Theron on top

Iraq war critic Sean Penn walked
away with the best actor award

The votes for best actor in a dramatic move went to Mystic River star and one-time Hollywood bad boy Sean Penn, who triumphed over fellow nominees Jude Law, Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise and Ben Kingsley.

Collecting the award on his behalf, the film's director, Clint Eastwood, hailed Penn's portrayal of the distraught father of a murder victim and said the award was recognition for a "truly exceptional actor" who had too often been overlooked.

Charlize Theron won the best actress in a drama category for her startling role as a vagabond serial killer in Monster.

"This is so crazy. I'm from a farm in South Africa. This is insane," said Theron, who was rendered virtually unrecognisable in the movie by a complete body and facial makeover.

Collecting his award for Lost In Translation, in which he played an over-the-hill actor struggling to get through an advertising shoot in Tokyo, Murray gave a special mention to Coppola, daughter of film directing great Francis Ford Coppola.

"I want to thank Sofia Coppola for writing a film that was so good that every actor in this room says, 'That lucky son of a bitch. It could have been me up there with that damn thing'," Murray said.

Keaton over the moon

Meryl Streep got an award for best
supporting actress in a TV series

Another veteran to win a top award was Diane Keaton who came away with the best actress in a comedy Globe for her role as a middle-aged lovebird in Something's Gotta Give.

"Let's face it, getting to play a woman in love at 57 is like reaching for the stars with a stepladder," said Keaton.

Zellweger dedicated her win to Cold Mountain director Anthony Minghella, calling him her "hero".

"I had had my fingers crossed for so long that you would call me," said the actress, who played a tough mountain woman in the film.

The Globe winners:

Best Drama: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Actor: Sean Penn, Mystic River
Actress: Charlize Theron, Monster
Supporting Actor: Tim Robbins, Mystic River
Supporting Actress: Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain
Director: Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

To her co-stars Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, she said: "It was a privilege to shovel out the barn with you."

The best foreign film Golden Globe went to Osama from Afghanistan.

With this year's awards' season shortened by an earlier-than-usual Oscars ceremony falling on 29 February, the Golden Globes winners could well influence Oscar voters who cast their ballots in a few weeks.

The Oscar nominations are already sealed, however, and will be announced on Tuesday.