Be aware that while Blender is definitely free, it had a very unconventional interface and the learning curve is extremely steep. I wouldn't recommend it for beginners.
It didn't see to much worse than Maya to me (although I've only just dabbled in modelling), and Blender has a pretty substantial community, too: http://cgcookie.com/blender/. I didn't have a ton of trouble after watching a couple tutorial videos.
But Dave's suggestion to look at free student version of Maya is a good idea, too, since it might be advantageous to work with a more common commercial software. IIRC there are limitations of what you can export with the student version though.