Actress Raquel Welch won a $10.8 million verdict against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer yesterday when a jury decided that the studio breached her contract by firing her from a starring role in "Cannery Row" and hiring actress Debra Winger to take her place.

The verdict, handed down after three days of deliberations and nearly four weeks of testimony, upheld on nearly every count Welch's claims that the studio had ruined her film career in what was to have been her first attempt to win recognition as a serious actress.

"I never expected such an overwhelming victory as this," said a tearful Welch outside the courtroom. She had raised her arms in exultation as the verdict was announced.

"I think what this shows is that it's important to stand up for your rights, and I hope that women in and out of Hollywood stand up for their rights when they feel they've been wronged," she said.

MGM officials said Welch was fired from her role in the 1980 film because she insisted on taking three hours a day to put on makeup and do her hair at home, refused to use the trailer provided for her at the studio and refused to make herself available for early morning rehearsals.

The movie, based on the John Steinbeck novella, received mixed reviews and was a box office flop.

The issue came to a head in December 1980, when David Begelman, then the MGM studio chief, ordered Welch to show up at the studio for makeup the following morning. She failed to appear, and the studio concluded that she had broken her contract.

Welch claimed, however, that MGM decided to get rid of her when Winger became available -- at a lower salary. She alleged that studio executives invented the makeup controversy to avoid having to buy out the remaining $194,000 of Welch's $250,000 contract.

The incident ruined her career, Welch said, perpetuating a perception that she is a difficult actress to work with. "It's a small town, and once they think you have breached your contract, who wants you, no matter who you are?" she said. "I haven't made a movie in almost six years."

The eight-woman, four-man jury upheld Welch's claim that Begelman, producer Michael Phillips and director David Ward plotted to remove her.

Welch, 43, who gained fame as a bikini-clad cavewoman in "One Million Years B.C.," had sued for $20 million. MGM was ordered to pay Welch $7.65 million in punitive damages and more than $2 million in compensatory damages for lost earnings. Other awards included nearly $695,000 against Phillips and $27,500 in damages against Begelman, who reportedly ordered the Graong during a meeting called to discuss the production's mounting cost overruns. No damages were assessed against Ward.

MGM attorney Christina Snyder said the studio would appeal. "We expect to be fully vindicated when further proceedings go through with this case," she said.

Jury foreman Joseph Collins said most of the jurors wondered why MGM did not simply pay off Welch's contract.

However, juror Tetsu Sasaki, who voted against many of the awards, said it appeared that "both parties were wrong in many ways." CAPTION: Picture, Raquel Welch raises her arms in victory after the $10.8 million judgement, ASSOCIATED PRESS