Academy Award-winning actor and longtime Sayles friend Chris Cooper presented the filmmaker with the award.
"He's telling the stories no one else is telling," Cooper said. "And he does it with intelligence and heart."
Among Sayles' films are "Passion Fish," "Lone Star," "Men with Guns," "Eight Men Out," "The Secret of Roan Inish," "Baby It's You," "Sunshine State" and "Silver City."
Sayles also directed the music videos for Bruce Springsteen's classic songs "Born in the U.S.A.," "I'm on Fire" and "Glory Days."
Following Sayles' tribute, film festival attendees viewed his latest film, "Honeydripper," which is about the origins of rock and roll in the Deep South, organizers of the festival said.