Taking the stage with Nomadland team -- including the real-life nomads cast in the film -- Zhao paid thanks to "all the people we met on the road, thank you for teaching us the power of resilience and hope and reminding us what true kindness looks like."
Frances McDormand, who produced and stars in the film, took the mic after Zhao to advocate for a return to cinemas. "One day very, very soon take someone you know into a theater, shoulder-to-shoulder in that dark space, and watch every film recognized here tonight," she said.
"We give this one to our Wolf," she concluded with a howl.
ET's Kevin Frazier spoke with Zhao after the show, and she opened up after the ceremony and explained the significance of McDormand's howl.
"The howling is for our production sound mixer, Wolf, who you saw out in the memorial," Zhao shared, referring to Michael Wolf Snyder, whom she's worked with on several past projects. "We unfortunately lost him recently... [but] he's part of the family."
Zhao also heaped praise on McDormand, who took home the Oscar for Best Actress. (Becoming the first actress recognized for acting and producing for the same film.)
"Lots of people might not know what she had done out there as a producer, as an actress, and how open and vulnerable she's been," she shared, "how much she has helped me to make this movie and helped all the nomads to feel comfortable on set."
"She really is Nomadland," Zhao said. "So, I'm just so happy she got that award."
Nomadland was nominated for six Oscars in total and won three.
The film became an Oscars frontrunner upon its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2020, where it won the top prize, the Golden Lion Award. It simultaneously screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and won the coveted People's Choice Award, becoming the first film to win both prizes. And that was ahead of its awards season haul.
And it all happened within a truly unprecedented awards season. "I will never know what it was like before, because I've never been out on the award circuit before," Zhao told ET. "This is my reality. If there is another chance in the future where there isn't a pandemic to this one, I will compare it to this one. I do think that the pandemic's slowing everything down and making us appreciate films that we might not notice before. It's an interesting landscape, and I'm very grateful to be part of it."