BACKGROUND: Computational approaches for finding DNA regulatory motifs in promoter sequences are useful to biologists in terms of reducing the experimental costs and speeding up the discovery process of de novo binding sites. It is important for rule-based or clustering-based motif searching schemes to effectively and efficiently evaluate the similarity between a k-mer (a k-length subsequence) and a motif model, without assuming the independence of nucleotides in motif models or without employing computationally expensive Markov chain models to estimate the background probabilities of k-mers. Also, it is interesting and beneficial to use a priori knowledge in developing advanced searching tools. RESULTS: This paper presents a new scoring function, termed as MISCORE, for functional motif characterization and evaluation. Our MISCORE is free from: (i) any assumption on model dependency; and (ii) the use of Markov chain model for background modeling. It integrates the compositional complexity of motif instances into the function. Performance evaluations with comparison to the well-known Maximum a Posteriori (MAP) score and Information Content (IC) have shown that MISCORE has promising capabilities to separate and recognize functional DNA motifs and its instances from non-functional ones. CONCLUSIONS: MISCORE is a fast computational tool for candidate motif characterization, evaluation and selection. It enables to embed priori known motif models for computing motif-to-motif similarity, which is more advantageous than IC and MAP score. In addition to these merits mentioned above, MISCORE can automatically filter out some repetitive k-mers from a motif model due to the introduction of the compositional complexity in the function. Consequently, the merits of our proposed MISCORE in terms of both motif signal modeling power and computational efficiency will make it more applicable in the development of computational motif discovery tools.