Every episode starts with the onscreen words "This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 2006 (or 1979/ 2010 depending on what season it is). At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred." This is a nod to the way that the 1996 source movie Fargo started (also by claiming that its events were based on a true story). However, neither the movie nor the TV show are actually based on true events. In a 2014 interview, the show's Executive Producer Noah Hawley clarified the "true story" episode introductions by saying "the show.... It's all just made up. The whole cloth. I didn't go looking for [a] true crime. It started from a character standpoint and everything grew organically out of that."
Season 2 takes place around an incident in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1979, and focuses on a young Lou Solverson (played in season one by Keith Carradine). The writer, Noah Hawley, says season 2 not only draws inspiration from Fargo, but also from other Coen Brothers movies such as Miller's Crossing and The Man Who Wasn't There
In Season One Episode 2, as Deputy Solverson and Lester exit the drug store, a parking spot is designated "Parking Reserved for Owner Mike Zoss". This is a reference to Mike Zoss Drugs, a Minnesota pharmacy, and no doubt a nod to the Coen brothers who spent time there in their youth, and subsequently named their production company Mike Zoss Productions, as well as giving the name to the pharmacy that is robbed in their film 'No Country For Old Men'.
In the first episode, Lester walks into a diner to meet up with Lorne, a sign advertises White Russians for $4.95. This is an obvious nod to the Coens and their film "The Big Lebowski" whose lead character The Dude drinks White Russians throughout the film.
When the FBI detectives discuss about the fox, rabbit and cabbage riddle it is a reference to the Office (UK) series. In fact Martin Freeman solves the riddle just like his character does in the Office.
There is Jewish symbolism throughout the first 4 episodes of season 1. Lester Nygaard's house number is 613. The ransom note to Stavros asks for an amount ending in 613 and when Gus talks to Molly after he has arrested Billy Bob Thornton, he tells her that he was on "a 613 - a dead dog". According to Judaic authorities, there are 613 mitzvahs - or commandments - in the Torah. Of course, we also keep seeing the Mitzvah Tank, in front of Gus's apartment, at the gas station where Gus gets the 613 call.
In the trailer for season 1, there is a clip where Mr. Numbers (Adam Goldberg) shoots a would-be robber with a gun covered in a Scrunyon bag. No such scene appears in the series. However, you can find the deleted scene in the "extras" section in the DVD, among others.
Bruce Campbell, who plays President Ronald Reagan, was also briefly visible onscreen in the source movie Fargo. He is in the soap opera that is playing on the TV in the kidnappers' cabin. This was actual archival footage of the young Campbell in a real 1980s soap opera, Generations, that really was one of his early acting jobs.
The 'fox, rabbit, and cabbage' question posed by Pepper and Budge to Lester is the exact same question posed to Martin Freeman (Lester) and his colleagues in The Office (UK, 2001): Season 1, Episode 4 - Training. Martin Freeman (Tim, Lester) gives the correct answer in both series.
The music in the credits of Rhinoceros (season 2) is "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" which is a nod to the Coen Brothers movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" In which the fictional band The Soggy Bottom Boys performed the track.
The soundtrack for season 2 contains several songs featured on the soundtracks for Coen brothers films. Included among them are: "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby" (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), as well as "Run Through the Jungle" and Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped In" (The Big Lebowski).
In season 1 episode 3 when Gus goes to tell his boss he could have picked up Lorne Malvo his boss mentions that 'it's just like Sioux Falls all over again' a mention to season 2 well before it was made!
In Season 3, Episode 3: When Gloria (Carrie Coon) rings the bell at the window of the Writers Guild Of America, the chime continues to resonate until the woman answering puts her finger on the bell. This appears to be a nod to the Coen Brothers movie Barton Fink where John Turturro rings the bell and Steve Buschemi puts his finger on it.
Ewan McGregor and Carrie Coon appear together in Season 3. McGregor appeared in August: Osage County, based on the play by Tracy Letts, husband of Carrie Coon. Ironically, Letts was initially quite resistant to McGregor's casting in the film adaptation.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In one of the final scenes of season 2, Hanzee receives a new identity (including the name Moses Tripoli), hints at plastic surgery, and threatens Kansas City saying, "Not apprehend, dead. Don't care heavily-guarded. Don't care into the sea. Kill and be killed. Head in a bag. There's the message." In season 1, the mob boss of Fargo uses nearly these exact words to describe how he wants Sam Hess's killer dealt with. According to the episode's credits, the boss's name is Mr. Tripoli. This connection implies that Hanzee altered his appearance and became Fargo's mob boss before being gunned down by a similarly ruthless killer: Lorne Malvo.
In the final episode of the first season, Lester tells Molly that she's all wrong and he's not a monster. She responds only by telling him a short parable about a man losing a glove out the window of a train and then throwing his second out also, so whoever finds them will have a full set. Lester cannot understand its meaning. Almost immediately after, he is given the famous riddle by Pepper and Budge about the fox, rabbit, and cabbage, which he solves quickly. His failure in solving the first riddle and success at the second was a clever way of demonstrating that although Lester had a brilliant mind for solving problems, he was incapable of understanding the virtues of empathy and selflessness.
Throughout the series, Lester wears a red hooded jacket, a reference to "Little Red Riding Hood" fable, indicating that he is a sort of prey running away. He drops it when he starts to feel like a new man starting from episode 8. This moment tracks the fact that Lester is no longer prey. In episode 10, while hunted by Lorne Malvo, he finds the red hooded jacket and wears it again, alluding that Lester is again prey being hunted by wolves.
Throughout the first season, Lorne Malvo uses riddles and parables to suggest that he is the ultimate predator and often alludes to wolves while doing so. Moments before he is killed by Gus, a wolf looks at him through the window of his cabin. Although never explicitly discussed in the show, this was done to highlight the moment that Lorne became the prey, while Gus became the predator.
I'm Season 3 Nikki finds herself at a bowling alley struggling with what to do next, she orders a drink and then she gets advice from a random stranger, this is a homage to the Coen Brothers other cult classic "The Big Lebowski"
In S1 E9 Burt calls Lorne (posing as Mike) "friendo." This happens again in S2 E10 when Mike Milligan confronts Ricky he calls him "friendo." These are probably nods to Anton Chigur (Javier Bardem) from No Country For Old Men.
In Season Two, the episode "Fear and Trembling" Lou is seen sitting outside late at night in front of his house with a shotgun, you can see him repeat this pattern in season 1 when he's sitting on the front porch of his daughters house late at night with a shotgun.
Bear Gerhardt is the only child of Floyd to outlive her. Charlie Gerhardt is one of four remaining Gerhardt grandchildren at the end of the season - along with Dodd's remaining three daughters who are mentioned, but never appear on the show.
In Season 3 Episode 7, the police enter Nikki Swango's motel room. The officers stop her and wrestle her down as she attempts to escape through the bathroom window. The scene is almost an exact recreation of Jerry Lundegaard's arrest at the end of the original film Fargo.