In the first few hours following Newcastle disease viral infection of human monocyte-derived dendritic cells, the induction of IFNB1 is extremely low and the secreted type I interferon response is below the limits of ELISA assay. However, many interferon-induced genes are activated at this time, for example DDX58 (RIGI), which in response to viral RNA induces IFNB1. We investigated whether the early induction of IFNBI in only a small percentage of infected cells leads to low level IFN secretion that then induces IFN-responsive genes in all cells. We developed an agent-based mathematical model to explore the IFNBI and DDX58 temporal dynamics. Simulations showed that a small number of early responder cells provide a mechanism for efficient and controlled activation of the DDX58-IFNBI positive feedback loop. The model predicted distributions of single cell responses that were confirmed by single cell mRNA measurements. The results suggest that large cell-to-cell variation plays an important role in the early innate immune response, and that the variability is essential for the efficient activation of the IFNB1 based feedback loop.