ESSEX actress Kierston Wareing, being hailed for her starring performance in a controversial film, has spoken of her excitement as she waits to see if she has won a top award.

Kierston Wareing, 31, from Leigh, is in the running for the Coppa Volpi best actress award at the Venice Film Festival.

In It's A Free World, made by famous director Ken Loach, she plays tough Essex girl Angie, who sets up a recruitment agency with her friend Rose (Juliet Ellis), placing migrant workers in low-paid jobs with poor working conditions.

The sudden attention Kierston is receiving is all the sweeter because it has taken her years to get a break.

She trained at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York from 1997 to 2000, but struggled to find work on her return to the UK.

She was retraining for a different career when she landed the role.

She said: "I was studying to be a legal secretary just before all this because I was about to give up acting - even though acting's my first passion.

"It has been a good 10-year struggle to get a break, to be honest. I've had so many situations before where I've got to the last person and never got it. I had a good response in the States and ended up getting a working visa. But I found it extremely difficult over here.

"Just getting an agent was really hard and I couldn't even get into an extras agency.

"Up until this film it's been bits and pieces, really, because I haven't been sent out that much - it was just for commercials, which I never got anyway, and then a part in The Bill, which I got, and then this. So this is my big break."

Kierston refused to watch any of Loach's previous work as part of her preparation.

She explained: "I didn't want to be intimidated. My friends were saying, Oh my God, Ken Loach!' and I was like, I don't want to know.' Not being rude, but I just wanted to get out there and do my job."

If Kierston wins the best actress award, she will be the second actress from Leigh in as many years to win it.

Dame Helen Mirren won the award last year for her star turn in The Queen.

Loach said he hoped his latest work would bring attention to the plight of immigrants - legal or otherwise - who have flocked to the country.

He said of his lead characters: "The way that Angie and Rose behave in the film is the way society wants them to behave. This is the way the world works - that you have to screw your neighbour, not support them but work against them.

"There are other characters in the film who hold true to other values, such as solidarity. I guess what is implicit in the film is that these ideas are worth fighting for."

The director of Kes, Raining Stones and The Wind That Shakes The Barley complained of the outright hostility towards migrant workers in the UK.

"Don't let's kid ourselves. You read the right-wing press in our country and it's full of attacks on immigrant workers," he said.

"On the one hand people say the economy couldn't survive without the immigrant workforce. On the other, the right wing is saying Get these people out of our country'. It's hypocrisy"

As well as the best actress category, It's A Free World is in competition for the Golden Lion prize for best picture.