For a black-and-white road-trip comedy set in the Heartland, Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” was never a guaranteed winning lottery ticket — but the popularity of the prolific director, coupled with a buzzed-about performance from Bruce Dern, gave the film a solid-enough jumping-off point, averaging $35,000 at four locations in New York and L.A.

The road ahead for the film is far from smooth sailing, however.

Paramount will need to nurture the film as it platforms throughout the rest of the country. An inevitable awards push will help.

“Nebraska,” which co-stars Will Forte and June Squibb, marks one of the most conservative starts for Payne, who took a pay cut to make $12 million-budgeted B&W film.

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Payne’s sophomore film, “Election,” a quirky dark comedy that starred Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, averaged nearly $20,000 from six debut locations in 1999. That film went on to gross $14 million at the domestic box office, the lowest sum for Payne since his directorial debut “Citizen Ruth,” which just grossed $285,111 in 1996.

So far, 2011’s “The Descendants” stands as the highest-grossing film for Payne, at north of $82 million domestically, followed by “Sideways” (2005) and “About Schmidt” (2002), which tallied $71.5 million and $65 million, respectively.

“Nebraska” has been steadily gaining steam in the cultural canon ever since premiering this year at the Cannes Film Festival, where Dern won best actor honors.

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And while Par played it safe launching “Nebraska” at the four usual theaters for a platform release (the Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika in N.Y. and Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark theater in L.A.), the studio looks to test the film’s growing buzz and solid reviews as it expands into the top 10 U.S. markets on Friday.

One recent example of a tough film to market that has crossed over is Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave,” which so far has grossed almost $25 million. Searchlight has gone aggressive with the film’s release, expanding it to its widest footprint this weekend (its fifth frame), at 1,411 locations.

With “12 Years a Slave” expanding, and a glut of other adult-targeted movies bowing over the holidays, Paramount will fight to keep “Nebraska” chugging along a road heavily traveled.