* 'Shape of Water' leads with 13 nominations
* 'Fairytales for modern times,' del Toro says of his movies
* Greta Gerwig gets rare female directing nod for 'Lady Bird'
* Fox studios harvest a bumper crop of nominations (Updates throughout with more background, quotes)
By Jill Serjeant and Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Fox Searchlight's fantastical romance "The Shape of Water" and its dark comedy "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" emerged as front runners for the Oscar best picture prize on Tuesday after capturing nominations in all of the major categories.
"The Shape of Water" earned a leading 13 nominations, including nods for best picture, screenplay, director Guillermo del Toro and actors Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer.
The nominations for the Oscars, the highest honors in the industry, were notable for their wide range and for embracing stories about and by women and people of color.
"I've never seen such variety that I can remember. There's something in there for everybody," said Laurie Metcalf, nominated for her supporting role in "Lady Bird."
"Shape of Water" has been celebrated as a visual feast about a woman who falls in love with a strange river creature.
"For 25 years, I've been preaching that the dark poetry and emotion of my stories are fairytales for modern times," Mexican director del Toro told Reuters.
Jenkins called it a film "about love and acceptance and empathy and not being judgmental."
Sweeping British World War Two drama "Dunkirk," from Warner Bros., followed with eight nominations, including for director Christopher Nolan.
But Fox Searchlight's quirky "Three Billboards," about an angry woman seeking justice for her daughter's murder, has dominated Hollywood's awards season so far, winning the top prize at the influential Screen Actors Guild awards on Sunday.
It got seven Oscar nods, with Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild winners Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell competing in the acting race, along with Woody Harrelson.
European betting firm Betway made "Three Billboards" favorite on Tuesday to win best picture, closely followed by "The Shape of Water."
The awards will be presented in Hollywood on March 4, hosted for a second year by late night TV star Jimmy Kimmel.
The six other best picture nominees are "Call Me By Your Name," a luscious coming of age gay romance set in Italy; British war film "Darkest Hour," starring best actor front-runner Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill; racial satire "Get Out"; mother-daughter tale "Lady Bird," disturbing romance "Phantom Thread" starring Daniel Day-Lewis in what he says will be his last movie; and press freedom movie "The Post."
"In a world that seems to be yearning for true statesmanship, to see Churchill’s words and legacy resonate so strongly... leaves us with full hearts today," the producers of "Darkest Hour" said in a statement.
Twentieth Century Fox and its independent film units dominated the studio tally, with 27 nominations.
Following months of headlines about sexual misconduct in Hollywood and beyond, and campaigns for female empowerment, women and their stories resonated with the 8,000 voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Greta Gerwig became only the fifth woman ever to be nominated for a best director Oscar, for "Lady Bird." The movie also won a nominations for stars Saoirse Ronan and Metcalf.
After two years of controversy over a largely white Oscar line-up, people of color also did well. Mary J. Blige, Octavia Spencer, Denzel Washington and Daniel Kaluuya all got acting nods.
"Get Out," Jordan Peele's modern racial satire told in the form of a thriller, won directing and screenplay nominations on top of a coveted best picture nod.
"It was a big risk to make this movie and it could have gone very wrong and the fact that everybody came together and made it work was welcome," Peele told Reuters. Interracial romantic comedy "The Big Sick" won a screenplay nomination.
Meryl Streep, 68, extended her lead as the most-nominated actor ever to 21, with her nomination for "The Post," Steven Spielberg's drama about the Washington Post's decision to publish secret papers about the Vietnam War.
Streep, starring as Post publisher Katharine Graham, said in a statement she was honored by the nomination "for a film I love, a film that stands in defense of press freedom, and inclusion of women’s voices in the movement of history."
But there were plenty of first time nominees, including Timothee Chalamet, 22, experiencing a sexual awakening in "Call Me By Your Name," Margot Robbie and Allison Janney for ice-skating movie "I, Tonya," and veteran British actress Lesley Manville for "Phantom Thread."
Reporting by Jill Serjeant and Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Frances Kerry