Blender is a top-dog and very powerful. I knew zero about 3d modeling, but I check out a book on Blender form my local lib and banged my head against it for a few days until I got the basics (i’m a programmer, just wanted the basics). The art-skills you learn in Blender will transfer over to any modeling program you use. The workflow might be a bit different, the hotkey for dragging vectors or w/e, but the actual skills you learn for modeling will be similar if not the same. Same thing for animation, UV mapping, texture painting, whatever.
If money isn’t an issue Maya is defiantly the best, even better than Max if you’re doing any kind of animation (Max is better for say, terrain or architecture), but don’t get the student version and think you can put your models up online, you don’t own anything you create with the student version and you could get people screwed over if they think they have a license to use that artwork. Blender is GPL software, but the copyleft of the GPL does not apply to art created with Blender, only the program itself. Also, when you buy a license for Maya I believe it’s only good for 3 years, at which time you must re-license to continue to purchase commercial software (although I may be wrong, it may just be 3 years of updates).
Start with Blender, once you’ve made some money with it switch to Maya. Chances are you won’t be able to appreciate the benefits of it until you’ve developed some talent anyway, and like I said, the hand-modeling skills and many technicalities of 3d modeling carry over to any 3d program you use, just like texturing or layer-based-editing in GIMP and Photoshop are different, but much the same.
I would also suggest to get/learn Inkscape unless you already have Illustrator. Inkscape is a great 2d vector drawing program, and you can quickly import the SVG files you produce into Blender or any 3d program as part of or the basis of a 3d model. The amount of work-scenarios you would use Inkscape or Illustrator image as part of a 3d model may be limited, but you’ll be glad you learned Inkscape especially if you’re modeling text. Just put “inkscape blender import” into Google, many examples of work using those two programs. Inkscape is free btw.
Krita is another good art related program, especially for texturing. Say you have a pressure pad, you could export a UV map to it and use a stylus to draw directly on your 3d image (via uv map). Cool stuff.